Being on the road day after day, with minds so full of memories and griefs, it was hard to keep track of time. Each day had a sameness that made them seem to blend together. Winter was coming. The landscape was alternatively barren and colourful, but with the certainty of coming chill, and the uncertainty that attends a long journey.
Their successful escape from William’s army had left them with a brief elation, but this had ebbed into a plodding persistence. Some days the hunting was poor and they were hungry. Some days it rained, and they endured a damp or sodden landscape as best they could, to say nothing of damp or sodden horses, clothing and blankets. Tempers occasionally grew short, and spirits were sometimes low. Each of them carried their own individual, often painful recollections. Sometimes one of the children, and sometimes one of the adults, woke gasping from dreams which played over the horrors they had seen, and added new ones. Though there were other travellers on the road, most were wary, and in no better case than they.
It had been a cloudy day, and a businesslike rain had begun. They hadn’t yet happened on a suitable place to make camp, and the light was going fast, when Godric, who was in the lead, spotted light down a track that intersected the road on which they travelled. Though times were troubled and welcome uncertain, they were all cold, tired, and secretly longing for the company of folk other than their own party. Without much discussion, they turned aside, hopeful of hospitality for the night.
The track led them toward a prosperous looking manner house. All the windows were lighted, giving the house an uncommonly jolly look, so that they wondered if they’d happened upon a feast. As they drew nearer to the house, their horses became restive. They peered carefully to either side of the track, fearing wolves or other predators, but saw and sensed nothing. Impatient for warmth and light, they urged their horses forward, and came to the stable yard. They looked around, but saw no one. Clearly, all the guests had arrived, and were snugly inside. Salazar was approaching the largest of the stable buildings, intending to lead their horses in out of the rain, when a figure suddenly appeared from around the side of the building.
The first they knew of him was a shadow against the darkness of the stable wall, and a creaky, lugubrious voice that said, “Who be you? I don’t know you. Not invited, were you?” They all jumped. Though the house looked bright and cheerful, the yard was so dark and empty that finding someone there was a shock.
“No,” Godric said, recovering himself. “We are travellers, weary, cold and tired. We’ve come to beg hospitality from your master for the night.” When no response was forthcoming, Godric added, “We had good hunting today, we ask for no vittles, but shelter and a warm fire would be very welcome on this cold and rainy night.”
It was too dark to see the man’s face, but after a discourteously long pause, he gestured toward one of the smaller stable buildings. “Take your beasts in there, then come with me to the house. My master isn’t partial to uninvited guests, but if you stay out of sight, you may come in out of the rain for the night.”
The horses were still jumpy. To their surprise, there was no hay in the stable, but the horses had grazed well that day, and once they’d been unsaddled, they settled, if fretfully, in the small stable provided for them.
The man, who’s name was Leofric, lead them away from the ornate front door, taking them instead to a less conspicuous side entrance of the manner house. They could hear the merry sound of voices, laughter and music. Leofric led them up some stairs and on to a recessed gallery that overlooked the hall. He told them that they were welcome to make themselves as comfortable as they might, and even brought them dry blankets. He warned them, however, not to interrupt the festivities below, as his master wouldn’t take kindly to ragged vagrants and beggars, not being a charitable man. Salazar and Godric bristled at Leofric’s description of them, but Helga and Rowena, wet, dirty, bedraggled and chilled through, didn’t think Leofric’s characterization of their party fell very short of the truth.
They wondered why Leofric hadn’t simply brought them to the kitchen to bide with the serving folk, where it was undoubtedly warmer, but they concluded that maybe the kitchen was simply too busy on such a festive night. They might have wished for beds and a warm hearth, but the gallery was dry, and once they’d used magic to dry their clothes, they were comfortable enough.
Salazar had chanced to bag a deer that morning, and they’d made a long stop, during which Helga had made a tasty stew with some late root vegetables. They still had quite a lot of this, and shared it out, warming it with their wands. They looked longingly down at the laden banquet tables below, heaped with fresh loaves, and liberally dotted with flagons of ale and mead, but only the boys were inclined towards clandestine raids, and Helga kept a beady eye on them, so they gave up the idea. Lacking any other occupation, and not yet tired enough to sleep through the raucous celebrations below, they made themselves comfortable to watch the proceedings.
It didn’t take them long to figure out that they’d made themselves uninvited guests at a wedding. The newly married couple sat at the high table with an older gentleman, who looked to be the bride’s father, and various other prosperous looking wedding guests. The father of the bride, and obvious master of the house, was a large man, dressed ostentatiously, and clearly deep into his cups. He spoke volubly to his guests, banged regularly on the table to emphasize his opinions, and called frequently for his cup to be refilled.
His jollity didn’t seem to be shared by the bride. She sat, her chair somewhat pushed back from the table as though she wished to hide from the festivities. Her new husband sat shoulder to shoulder with his host, matching him in mead, and eyeing the serving girls. The further you looked from the high table, the less affluent the party-goers were, though all seemed merry, merrier than the bride anyway.
The gallery looked down from three sides. The travellers were tucked in one corner, but in prominent view on the perpendicular side of the gallery were the musicians. If nothing else, all the travellers thought, the music was cause enough to be grateful for this refuge from a cold, wet night outdoors. Songs were common enough, but a band of musicians playing together was a treat. There were drums, bone whistles, a rebec, a lyre, and a gorgeous fifteen-string harp that made Godric’s fingers twitch with longing. Rather incongruously, there was even a bell ringer. The bells usually fit well enough into the tunes being played, but sometimes the bell-ringer seemed to go off into some private reverie, so that the bells sounded with an inappropriate persistence that would stay with the travellers long after they departed this place. The music was lively, and the evening shifted from eating toward drinking. Some tables had been moved aside, and people were dancing energetically in the cleared spaces.
“Oh I like this one!” Helga exclaimed. There was a man who used to play this on a lyre when I was growing up!” She tapped her foot in time to the sprightly tune.
Godric rose with his easy grace, and bowed to her. Smiling like a girl, she rose and they moved away from their gear on to bear floor. Soon Emmeline and the boys were up too, and in the dimness of the gallery corner, they danced. The musicians seemed tireless. Helga and Godric sang along to the songs they knew, and Emmeline even managed to coax Rowena and Salazar up for a dance or two. After days in the saddle, it was a joy to throw their bodies into the chaotic movement. Their spirits, oppressed by recent events, had felt little impulse to sing lately, but now, unheard in the general merriment all around them, they raised their voices in a robust defiance of grief and loss. As it does at such times, time became meaningless, and they simply were.
Helga was just thinking it would be time to rest soon, when she saw Emmeline stop moving, and stare fixedly down the gallery. Following Emmeline’s gaze, Helga saw the form of a young woman gliding toward them. It was difficult to make her out at first. The festivities below were brightly lit with dancing flame, but not so up here in the dark corner. Soon though, Helga realized with alarm that it was the bride herself. A serving girl might be talked round, but the daughter of the master of the house wasn’t someone she wanted to meet, certainly not wearing muddy clothes and with her hair in such a state.
Godric instinctively stepped back, more intimidated than he would have been by a well-armed soldier. Helga took a breath and got out a shaky, “My lady,” when the bride gestured dismissively. “I knew you were here,” she said, “I saw you.”
“We…,” Helga nearly said, “Leofric told us…,” but stopped herself, not wanting to repay kindness with trouble.
The bride glanced down at the lighted room below. “I’m not going to tell anyone,” she said, not sounding especially interested. “I just wanted some air, so I thought I’d come and see who you are. Did Leofric bring you up here? You’ve obviously been on the road.” She was still looking down at the activity below.
“Well,” Helga said noncommittally, we put our horses in one of the smaller stable buildings, and if we might just lie here tonight. You know, it’s raining rather hard and….” But the girl, who looked to be about Emmeline’s age, wasn’t paying any attention. She stared hard at her father and the groom, then let her gaze shift almost wistfully over the rest of the room. “They are enjoying themselves,” she said calmly. “The music is very nice too. I waited for that.”
Helga shuffled uneasily. She wasn’t sure what to do now. It seemed rude to just go back and join her companions as though the girl wasn’t there, but standing beside such a clearly distracted person was awkward under the circumstances. “Yes,” she said at last, “The music is truly wonderful.”
“I feel a little bad about that,” but there was really no help for it; it has to be everyone.”
Helga was even more lost than before.
“Have you been married?” the girl asked unexpectedly.
“No,” Helga answered. Looking down at the high table, it was hard to regret it.
“I tried to argue with my father about getting married, but he wouldn’t listen. You can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with someone like that as your father.” She gestured toward the high table, where her father was arm wrestling with a weedy-looking youngster. “He’s a violent man.”
Helga silently agreed with both statements. “Will you be going far from home?” She asked sympathetically.
The bride’s head came up as though in surprise. “Oh, I won’t be going anywhere.” The words were spoken calmly, but something sent chills down Helga’s spine. “The man I wanted to marry is over there.” The girl gestured toward the musicians. “The one beating the drum,” she said. Her voice almost cracked, but didn’t. “We’ll be together soon though.”
Normally Helga’s impulse was to try to soothe distress, but she found herself simply wishing the girl would just go away. “Had you better be getting back to your guests?” She asked politely. “You’ll soon be missed.”
The bride shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. It’ll be time soon, then no one will miss me.”
The girl stepped forward abruptly, peering down. Some of the guests seemed to have been overcome by the merriment, and were sprawled on benches, or even on the floor. Helga was startled. Perhaps the feast had been going on all day?”
The girl sighed with satisfaction. “Yes,” she said, “There will be no one to miss me soon.” She glanced briefly at Helga. “Leofric didn’t give you ought to eat or drink, did he?”
“No,” Helga answered, surprised by such a lack of charity.
The bride returned her gaze to the room below. At the high table, the groom was looking seedy, and one or two of the guests were clutching their middles.
Helga gasped. “Do you know what’s wrong with them?” When the girl didn’t reply at once, Helga started to reach out a hand to touch the girl’s arm, but stopped herself with a faint shudder.
“Oh I know,” She was watching her father, who was now doubled over. Cries of dismay were rising from below. People writhed in pain, some rolling around on the floor, others ominously still.
Helga moved restlessly, but Godric, who had crept up behind them, put a detaining hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong with them?” He asked quietly.
The girl started in surprise, but then shifted her gaze quickly back to the high table. “I poisoned them,” she said tranquilly, but with a faint note of satisfaction. “It’s a woman’s weapon you know.”
Helga felt suddenly as though she herself had been poisoned. She, who used herbs to heal, knew well about the ones that did the opposite. They were a woman’s power, and yes, a woman’s weapon, one of few.
In the room below, things were going downhill fast. Helga’s instincts made her want to help, or at least give comfort, but what could she do? She was grateful for Godric’s hand on her shoulder, anchoring her. Many people had stopped moving entirely, and the seen below was a roiling chaos of suffering.
When the master of the house stopped moving, the girl shifted her gaze toward the musicians. Occupied as they had been, they’d been drinking more slowly. They had stopped playing, staring shocked at the scene below, but so far, only two of them had set down their instruments, looking ill.
She was now staring at the young man who was holding his drum, and looking around in dismay. She took a deep breath, and began moving toward him. A random burst of fire light from below lit her as she moved, reflecting off the jewels of broach and bracelet, casting light on her veil as the bride made her way toward her love. The young man rose, looking shocked, as she moved into his arms.
Just then, there was a shuffling of feet, and Leofric was tugging at Godric’s sleeve. “Come now!” he said urgently. “You must leave. You mustn’t be here now. I’ll take you to your horses and you spend the night in the stable. Come now!”
Shocked, but eager to leave the terrible scene below, and the only slightly less disturbing one unfolding on the gallery, they hastily gathered their belongings, and followed Leofric out of the house, feeling chilled with horror. They looked with concern at Leofric, but he assured them he hadn’t taken any of the mead. “Gives me gas,” he explained laconically.
The horses were still restive, and seemed glad for their return. No one slept much. The adults agreed they’d take turns watching, though they couldn’t say for what, but though they tried to at least lie down, no one got much rest. They rose at first light. They packed their gear and saddled the horses, wanting to put distance between themselves and this place before breaking their fast.
The weather had cleared, and the morning was brightening fast. Emerging into the light, they were surprised to see how dilapidated the stable buildings actually were; they hadn’t noticed in the dimness the evening before. They looked around for Leofric, both wanting and not wanting to see him. They felt they should thank him, but feared they might have to help him cope with the aftermath of the night’s events.
“All the horses,” Salazar said reluctantly, clearing his throat. The others looked at him in confusion. “All those,” his voice broke. “Those guests, they will have stabled their horses in the largest stable building. I’d be willing to bet most of the serving folk took the mead too.”
His meaning was clear, so they turned reluctantly toward the main stable building, then stopped. This building was markedly run down, the timbers rotted and collapsing. Surely they would have noticed such dilapidation even in the poor light of the night before. The building was empty. There were no horses.
They all turned slowly toward the manner house, and caught their breath in shock. No amount of dimness or twilight gloom could account for this. The house was, if anything, in worse case than the stable. It was clearly a building in which no one lived, or had lived for many a season. Aidan and Cadogan moved close to Helga, hanging on to her skirt. She reached out and put an arm protectively around each of them, not saying anything.
Rowena and Emmeline drew closer together, but Salazar said quietly, “I’m going to go look.” Squaring his shoulders, Godric followed. Then, so did Rowena, leaving the others in an extremely uneasy huddle in the yard.
All was quiet in the house. They moved cautiously, though it seemed unlikely there was anyone to disturb. There was though. Leofric stood in the entrance way, as though guarding the door to the galleried hall.
“They’re all in there,” he said sadly. “She did for them all with her witch’s brew. There’s only me and a few serving folk left. We can’t bury them all.”
He moved aside, and reluctant but feeling they had no choice, Salazar, Godric and Rowena moved forward. They had steeled themselves for the gruesome sight to be revealed by the merciless light of morning. What the morning light revealed was so far from what they expected, that it took them quite a few moments to take in what they were seeing.
The furniture was there, tables chairs and benches standing, or tipped over, some holding cups and dishes coated in dust, some lying amid broken shards and the dust of long-decayed rushes. And, lying where they had fallen, were the unmistakable skeletons of many people. Without thinking, the three of them drew together and clasped hands, desperately seeking life and the reassurance of it. Finally, they turned back, their eyes searching for Leofric.
He hovered in the doorway. Though the light was growing, they realized suddenly that he was getting harder to see. “I couldn’t bury them. I stayed for a while, but I couldn’t do anything, and all the other serving folk who lived, left. My lady got what she wanted. She was avenged on her father for all he had made her suffer, and she lies still up there, in the arms of her sweetheart.”
None of them had the heart to get close enough to see what was left of the gallery. In fact, they were, each one, quivering with reaction. Leofric was barely visible now. “I couldn’t bury them,” he said once more, then faded into the shadows.
The three fairly ran out of the house. They refused to stop and tell what they’d seen, instead mounting their horses, and urging the others to do the same. They rode down the track back toward the main road at a gallop. Finally, they slowed down when the horses began to tire. In halting tones, the three described what they had seen. They rode through the crisp bright air, their conversation at odds with the cheerful looking landscape, suffused with early morning sun.
“But what did we see?” Emmeline asked.
“Shadows,” Salazar answered gravely, “Shades of life that had been, but is no longer.”
“But we danced to their music, saw them eat and drink!” Aidan exclaimed.
“We have lost track of days,” Rowena said. “I think perhaps last night was the feast of Samhain.” She looked at the children. “The end of the old year, and the start of the new: it’s a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin.”
As they rode on, more than one peered covertly at their clothing, as though afraid that the darkness of the gallery would somehow be clinging to them: that they would, in some way, carry it away with them, But they did not. They stopped soon after, and shared out the rest of the stew from yesterday. Though they hadn’t properly rested the night before, they all felt relieved to have put some distance between themselves and the manner house. It seemed to them that the changing colours of the leaves were particularly bright, and the sunlight particularly golden.
“I wonder how long ago they died,” Emmeline said as they mounted and rode away once more. No one had an answer of course.
They all spent the afternoon looking around them more attentively than they usually did, not so much out of apprehension, but out of gratitude, appreciation to be alive in the bright, living world. They had all carried away painful memories from the battle, and from things that had come before. Somehow, for all of them, the sharpest edge of their various griefs blended with the events of the previous night. The revelers, the doomed young couple, all those slain wedding guests from no one knew how long ago, all began to take on the feeling of something remembered in a dream or nightmare. All those people had perished long since. Their loves, hates, fears and vengeance were gone to dust. It made their own painful memories seem comfortingly distant, and the bright, living world, very near.
In late afternoon, they made camp beside a stream where a cluster of apple trees grew. As Godric prepared his fishing gear, Helga and the young people roamed about, gathering fire wood and late apples. They were camped on a rise of ground that showed them the unmistakable signs of a village a half day’s ride away. They were tired, and in no hurry, but it was reassuring to see the commonplace signs of human habitation: a mill, wood smoke rising on the still air, and grazed fields. Tomorrow they would meet new folk, perhaps be able to buy bread, and to sleep in the comforting ordinariness of an inn. For now, they were alive, and free.
They felt a strange elation. The boys and Emmeline chased one another, pelting each other with rotten apples. Godric fished contentedly. Helga foraged for herbs and late eatables, and Rowena and Salazar sat together, studying Rowena’s copy of the Metamorph Magi. They all felt as though the night at the manner house, frightening though it had become, was a turning point. Somehow, such an intimate encounter with deaths past, set them all more firmly on the road that looked forward rather than back.