of Abalone: Volume One of The Book of Ond
Three years on from the events of THE RUNESPELL
TRILOGY, the young lords of Torra Alta are a little older and, perhaps a
little wiser. They will need to be, to face their new challenges...
While Spar broods over his stewardship of
the deadliest artefact in the world, Hal and Brid have become betrothed.
But the weakening of Morrigwen, the eldest of the Trinity of priestesses,
forces them all to face the future. And so quests must begin - for the
Maiden to take Brid's place, for wolf cubs who are vital to the survival
of the Trinity, and for the King's new bride. Alone and collectively.
The Torra Altans find that they and their world are under threat as never
before. They must cheat death itself to survive...
Volume One of The Book of Önd. Published by Simon
The rusted iron jaws snapped shut. Jagged points of splintered bone burst
through her torn hide as the rusted teeth bit deep. Wapeka jerked back her long
neck, screaming as the wrenching pain in her shattered hindleg racked through
She kicked frantically to rip herself free but the iron jaws held fast. In
panic, she scrabbled and tore at the metal teeth, chewing at her leg and
shredding flesh. Thick dark blood smothered her blue-grey muzzle.
It was hopeless. After the frenzy of pain came seeping numbness. She knew it
was over. The sadness swept through her, cutting more cruelly than the iron
jaws. Only then did she turn to acknowledge the staring eyes of her three cubs.
The two he-cubs, one grey, the other tawny, padded closer and started to suckle
but for a moment the third, a she-cub, held back. Pure white, like the tumbling
waters of the Silversalmon River, she had eyes the like of which Wapeka had
never seen before in a wolf. They were beautiful but frightening in their
intensity; dark blue-green, shiny like a holly leaf glistening after a frost.
Her snow-fresh coat was bespattered with spots of her mother’s blood, like
winter ground stained by fallen ripe berries.
Wapeka’s little cub began nuzzling her, urging her to get up.
The mother wolf looked at her through a deepening haze that glazed her eyes.
There was nothing she could do for them now. Winter in the Yellow Mountains was
harsh; they would starve without her - and if they did not, the men would get
them, just as they had finally trapped her.
She thought she had outsmarted them, even the most cunning. Yes, the one with
the long beard, who wore a grey-blue pelt, but he had found her den. She had
been so careful to leave tracks heading towards the Chase before picking her way
north again, and she had thought herself so clever when she avoided leaving
tracks in the snow-fields by painstakingly carrying her cubs one by one over the
scree slopes. She thought she had outwitted him: the one who wore the blue-grey
She knew that pelt; her grandmother, too, had failed to outwit this trapper.
How could she have been so arrogant to think she might?
She had lost. She accepted it, embraced it, hoped she would die here in the
trap before the man came to torment her further. She accepted death for herself;
it was part of the cycle. But not now, not yet. For the sake of her cubs not
Wapeka slumped back onto her side so that her cubs could take their fill of
her milk before she made them go. There was a sweet pain as they suckled: the
sweet comfort of giving all that she could to them; and the agony of knowing
this was the very last time. She knew their chances of survival were minimal.
She closed her eyes against the pain, barely able to raise her head now. She had
lost so much blood. The ravens were already gathered in the trees, waiting for
her, signalling to the trapper that his snare was full. He would come soon.
The pups were whimpering. Her smallest, the little tawny
falling asleep after his feed but they must to leave now. She snarled angrily at
them to go. Swallowing back her pain, she turned to the biggest of her litter.
With nudges of her wet nose, she urged him to head north towards the high
mountains and the pass where the snows would still be thick. Man dared not tread
those snow-clad peaks in the winter months and her sister would be there. She
would protect them.
Wapeka warned her cubs that the man would come soon.
Their eyes were startled, disbelieving.
She snuffled at them, wanting to appear calmly at ease, and hoped they would
understand that her time had come, as it comes to all, and that they must leave
The largest pup, his grey hair still fluffy, his eyes round and his tail
bristling, staggered up onto his oversized feet and nuzzled at the side of her
head. He made no attempt to go. The white she-cub cracked a high-pitched yowl
and crept closer, her eyes imploring her mother to rise.
Wapeka desperately fought to mask her pain … and her sorrow. The terrible
knowledge that she would not see her beautiful litter grow to adulthood, that
she must die knowing they had but little chance of living through the winter,
overwhelmed her. She looked from her cubs to the ragged white peaks crowning the
northern horizon. She must impress on them the importance of getting to those
snowbound crags. But they were so young …
The snow-white she-cub whined and snuggled closer to her mother’s thick
Wapeka snapped at her daughter and sharply nudged her away with her nose.
Maybe her cubs would be strong enough to survive the savage cold and grim hunger
that they faced without her. They had to reach the high hunting grounds where
her sister would protect them.
She implored them to keep to the shadows, warning them of the eagles harrying
Eagles and more! She thought of her grandmother’s warning earlier that year
about the gathering of beasts in the sky. The rest of the pack had mocked the
old wolf’s words, saying she had grown blind with age and mistook
thunderclouds for demons. But Wapeka had believed her.
She twisted her head to watch through a darkening haze as her cubs stumbled
pathetically over the scree and dragged their floppy little bodies through the
snow. The little white she-cub faltered, turning uncertainly back and Wapeka
snarled her disapproval. With a whimper the white cub scampered after her
brothers, tripping over her paws as she went.
Wapeka watched until they were lost from sight. She closed her eyes against
the insufferable grief, almost welcoming the crushing pain in her hindleg. When
she was too weak to raise her head, the first of the ravens dropped out of the
trees and began to peck at the bloodied mess of her leg. The man would come
soon, the man with the blue-grey pelt. She could smell his scent clinging to the
rusty iron jaws.
Too weak to even kick at the carrion birds with her free legs, she could do
no more than moan as she suffered the slow long hours of her death. Her bloated
tongue lolled from her open jaws. She blinked open her eyes and watched as the
ravens warily approached her muzzle. She was too weak to care. She wished the
ravens would peck more voraciously and finish her off quickly, but instead they
abruptly took to the wing in a startled cloud.
He was close. His odour was strong; the sour scent of man.
Great Mother, protect my cubs, she prayed. Embrace me into the bliss of
Annwyn, into the one consciousness. Mother, above all else, protect my wolflings
He stood over her, his boot level with her muzzle. She felt a stab of pain as
he kicked her ribs, testing for response. She was not dead yet but it made
little difference. Something glinted in the man’s hand as it caught the sun -
a flash of brilliant white intensity. It swelled to encompass her, like the sun
engulfing a dwindling flame.
She kicked once as her body fought the pain of the knife.
Mother, I am coming home, she thought with welcome as the sweet embrace of
merciful death enveloped her.
In crone’s cauldron and runic stave,
In ancient henge and sorcerer’s cave,
I am the power of the mage.
I am the necromancer’s song;
Druid and wizard call on me;
I am the runelord’s mastery;
In Earthbound magic I am strong.
In chasm deep and sacred well
In rocky steep and briny swell
And sunbright gemstone, there I dwell.
In bryony and celandine,
Oak, hazel, ash and mistletoe,
Through forest bear and sparrow-hawk,
Through every man and beast I flow.
I am within : I am without
For I am Önd, the breath of life.
Caspar checked over his shoulder. No one was watching. In his haste he
slipped and grazed his hand on the rough stone as he scurried down the
Coiling down to the forbidden underworld, the whisper of his padding footfall
echoed loud in the narrow confines of the stairwell. He winced at the noise and
slowed as he neared a side door that led to the disused back entrance of the
wellroom. He could hear the sound of clanking chains and squealing pulleys that
dredged up the sulphurous water from the roots of the Yellow Mountains to be
purified by raging furnaces. Heat and golden light poured around the edges of
the heavily reinforced door.
He crept on tentatively. Perhaps he should go back rather than risk
displeasing all three high priestesses?
He thought how his furtive behaviour would upset his mother and disappoint
Brid, and was about to turn back when a prickling sense of foreboding urged him
on. Something had changed in the unlit chambers. An uncertain frown wrinkled his
brow and his nostrils flared as he breathed in the stale hot air. Beyond the
whiffs of sulphur from the wellroom was a smell he hadn’t noticed before. And
he didn’t like it.
Once below the side entrance to the well-room, he took a firebrand, that he
always left in a bracket on the wall, and struck a flint. The firebrand
sputtered reluctantly into flame and, in its wavering light, he hurried down the
last of the steps to the outer dungeon door. Here at the bottom of the steps,
the stairwell was dank and smelt of long disuse.
He reached for the ring of keys at his belt and cursed as they jangled in the
stultified air. His fingers quickly felt out the familiar texture and shape of a
crudely fashioned key the length of his outstretched hand. With a guilt-laden
sense of intimacy, he inserted it into the steel door before him and listened as
the mechanism creaked and clacked. The lock released. He shouldered his weight
against the reluctant bulk of the vast doors, bruising the point of his
shoulder, and forced them just wide enough for his slender frame to slip
Though he had thickened a little in the three years since the Vaalakan siege
and his boyish muscles now had the sinewy strength of an athletic youth, he had
not grown as much as he had hoped. A hazy red stumble spiked his chin but it was
not dark enough to be obvious. The most noticeable changes were in his
expression and mannerisms. Though his mother’s return had given him a sense of
worth that he had lacked through his childhood, many had commented how his
honest, open manner was becoming withdrawn and moody. Caspar denied it though he
knew the weight of his responsibility preoccupied his mind.
The flame of the firebrand guttered and smoked, failing to a red point that
glowed for a moment before dying. Caspar swore. With nervous fingers, he trimmed
the torch and hastily struck the flint of his tinderbox.
The dungeons smelt. Not of flesh nor decay. No man nor woman had been
imprisoned here below the levels of the wellroom for many generations, not since
his ancestor, Baron Pellinore, had spies incarcerated here during the Ceolothian
wars four hundred years ago. Still the dank air held the smell of death. Caspar
struck the flint again but still the fluff refused to catch. The hairs on the
back of his neck prickled. He struck the flint again.
From the brief flash of light, shapes and images sprang up, sharply defined
against the blackness. A body-shaped cage, hanging on rusted chains, was given
eerie form and substance by an intricate weave of cobwebs that bulked its core.
Again he struck the flint. It illuminated the sinister shapes of what he knew to
be shin-breaking ankle stocks. Coils of rusted chain lay like nests of sleeping
snakes on the dust-choked floor. With the light gone the smell seemed stronger
and his nostrils flared. He couldn’t place it; sickly sweet like fouled straw
from the mews yet rancid and fishy. His hand shook as he repeatedly struck the
He needed the reassurance of light to calm his feral imagination. He knew
there was nothing down here besides the rusted chains, a few spiders, the
occasional rat and, of course, the heavy oak casket containing the Druid’s
Egg. He’d crept down to visit the casket countless times during past three
years. During that period the garrison had been brought back to strength and the
frontier castle repaired. It seemed so much more than three years since they had
driven back the Vaalakan hordes and even longer since he and Hal had first met
Brid. He missed that innocent period of his youth. Too much had changed.
But the dungeons, this chamber of misery, had not changed in all that time
– until now. Today he felt a twinge of fear.
At last the tinder caught and he held it against the firebrand. It crackled
back into life, the flame flickering reluctantly and the black oil giving off a
dark trill of smoke that dispersed into the dungeon’s gloom. He steadied his
hand and took a deep breath.
The smell was gone. The dungeons seemed normal again and his overpowering
fascination for the Druid’s Egg quickly chased away all fears from his mind.
He licked his lips with anticipation as he picked his way across the floor
towards an insignificant-looking low oak door in the far corner. He unlocked it
and opened it slowly, almost reverently, his mouth dry with nervous
The door opened on a small pit hewn out of the solid rock, barely big enough
to hold a cramped and stooping man. An ancient oak casket, banded by ribs of
steel, its wood darkened by much polishing with linseed oil, sat
inconsequentially at the back of the rocky cell. A plain but large padlock
secured the hasp.
Caspar’s hand itched to release the lock. He yearned to touch the Egg. His
mother, Keridwen, had impressed on him that it was a fearful thing of terrible
powers, too easy to misuse, and had with ominous tone called it by its ancient
name, Necrönd. All three high priestesses had warned him against handling it
and had even forbidden him to come down here at all; but he had responsibilities
over Necrönd that they clearly did not understand and he was old enough now not
to be so cowered by their disapproval. Naturally it was right to be cautious
but, even though he sensed the disturbing power of the Egg, he was not afraid.
Necrönd could bring back life, could call the spirits of the ancient beasts
of legend from the Otherworld and give them form. Trapped within its shell was
the breath of life, the essential Önd of those beasts banished from this world
by the First Druid. Their wanton savagery and brooding hatred of other life made
coeval existence with man impossible and so the ancient thaumaturge had bound
their life force within the Egg. Now they were no longer free to walk the Earth
but were trapped in the parallel world of spirit. Only the one who held Necrönd
could summon the beasts of power. And Caspar was that one. How then could he be
He checked the lock on the casket and, just to satisfy himself that he would
know if anybody disturbed it in his absence, he plucked a hair from his fringe
and placed it over the hasp. As he was about to squat down by the casket, the
door groaned behind him. A cold sweat sprang up on his palms and forehead and
the torchlight wavered in the blast of air. He steadied his breathing and told
himself that it was just a sudden back-draught created by the wellroom furnaces.
His concentration had been broken but he was reluctant to leave the Druid’s
Egg. Rather than hurry away, as he knew he should, he thoughtfully began tracing
out the runes carved deep into the wooden surface of the casket. Under Brid’s
tuition he had learnt much of runespells and, even if he didn’t already know
by heart what these sigils meant, he would have had little problem deciphering
Use not the tools of the Gods lest they use you.[SEE RUNE
APPENDIX NOTE 1]
After the lifting of the Vaalakan siege, Lady Keridwen had removed Necrönd
from her son’s possession and placed it in the casket. Together with the other
two high priestesses, Morrigwen and Brid, she had inscribed the runes on the
arched lid and, with the aid of Caspar’s father, had it removed to the
security of the dungeons. It had taken Caspar months to find the three keys
needed to reach the Necrönd but he had achieved it and, one by one, had a smith
copy them before the high priestesses noticed any were missing. Later, he had
felt compelled to steal the original three. With each passing year he had been
more troubled by his guardianship of the Egg and decided he could not allow even
his mother to have access to it but he could never find the keys again.
He feared he had risked being down here too long. What if his father, Baron
Branwolf, heard of his disobedience? That was another matter altogether. He
dragged himself to his feet, locked the cell door behind him and picked his way
through the dungeons. Snagging his foot in a chain, he tripped, falling against
the iron maiden, which swung and creaked alarmingly. The touch of the metal felt
rough and cold as he steadied it. He pulled away with distaste and took hurried
strides towards the dungeons’ outer steel doors. Hesitating, he put his hand
to the door, fearing that someone was watching. Though he could hear nothing,
the uncomfortable feeling wouldn’t leave him. Perhaps Morrigwen had sent
someone to spy on him. Of late, she always wanted to know what he was doing.
Today he felt particularly anxious and thought it prudent to extinguish his
torch before he opened the door just in case anyone was looking down the
stairwell for him.
He twisted his torch into the dirt of the dungeon floor to snuff the flame.
The oily acrid smoke smarted his eyes and he coughed. Then, as darkness swelled
into the tall chamber, he could smell the stagnant aroma again. Even through the
smoke he could smell it, though it was faint as if carried from afar on a
breeze. Hurriedly, he heaved open the heavy steel door. A whispered breath
caressed his cheek and something lightly brushed the skin at the nape of his
neck. He rushed through the door, slammed it shut with a resounding clang and
fumbled for his keys. With an echoing clatter, they dropped to the floor. He
stooped to retrieve them and, with sweating fingers, at last managed to lock the
Trembling, he took the spiralling steps two at a time, dropped his firebrand
back into its bracket and steadied himself for the last few paces before
returning to the bustle of castle life. Outside the thin crisp light of early
morning filled Torra Alta’s inner courtyard. He inhaled the sharp air and
smiled. It was mid Horning, a month he loved for its sharp freshness and silvery
landscape. His breath billowed out in a cloud of warm white vapour.
"Oh, Spar," a soft voice despaired. "I thought I’d warned
Caspar spun round guiltily and nudged at his crooked nose with his hand
before raising his eyes to meet his mother’s reproving look. Her level stare
pierced through to his soul. He could not hold her gaze and turned away from the
deep concern welling out of her startling blue eyes.
"It does no harm. I am its master; the rules are not meant for me,"
Caspar protested surlily.
"You do not understand the power. Do not meddle with it; I won’t be
able to protect you if you do."
Keridwen did not continue to chide her son but left her warning hanging as
she turned towards the keep. Her sharp departure made Caspar feel all the more
guilty. Perhaps he shouldn’t visit the Druid’s Egg – well, not every day
anyway. He knew she was expecting him to run after her to apologize and he was
determined that he would not. He turned sulkily away from her just to prove that
he could not be so intimidated and glimpsed Branwolf’s solid figure at the
arched entrance to the keep. He decided he would take his horse out for a gallop
up into the mountains and check that the trappers were obeying his father’s
Caspar’s eyes turned back to linger on Keridwen for just a second longer
and he changed his mind. He didn’t want to hurt her and decided that storming
off like that only made him look guilty. He ran after her..
"How’s Morrigwen?" he asked a little too casually, trying to
divert the conversation away from himself.
"I think you should see for yourself before …" The high priestess
faltered and turned away, gazing westward to the snow-capped mountains that
glistened in the brilliant sunshine. "Time is passing. She is older now
than any other person I’ve ever heard of." She raised her sad eyes to the
blue and gold of Torra Alta’s standard fluttering above the brightly coloured
stone of the new west tower. The rebuilt tower stretched up even higher than
before, a great lance above the blocky keep, the Dragon Standard snapping and
cracking as its rich cloth caught in the sharp breeze.
The old Crone had insisted on the top turret room of the rebuilt west tower,
maintaining that it gave her the best view of the Yellow Mountains. The
whinstone walls of the buttressed castle, with its sheer foreboding towers were
perched on a narrow pillar of rock that jutted out of the canyon. The Tor
climbed to a height level with the surrounding jagged mountains, affording an
advantageous view over the Pass. But, in truth, Morrigwen was rapidly losing her
eyesight and Caspar doubted she could see the length of her room let alone
across the canyon to the snowbound peaks.
He began the spiralling climb to the turret room. Born to the steep terrain
and hard life of the mountains, his muscles hardly noticed the effort but he
didn’t wonder that Morrigwen barely left her rooms; the arduous climb would be
too fatiguing for her frail body. If she wished to go elsewhere, a soldier was
summoned to carry her - something she suffered with ill-grace.
The door to the turret room was slightly ajar and he crept in almost
soundlessly on his soft-soled leather boots. Except for a humble bed, the
chamber was devoid of homely attire and instead was filled with fascinating and
macabre artefacts of divination. But today Caspar took in little of the details;
he was too shocked to see how fragile the old Crone had become. Her wispy veil
of silver hair hanging in gossamer-like tatters about her shoulders, she sat
with her back to the door, gazing west towards the Yellow Mountains that Caspar
could see through the narrow crack of an arrow slit window. Sitting neatly on a
low stool at her feet was a young girl stroking a scaly red salamander that
basked and blinked in the warmth of a crackling fire. Her luxuriant chestnut
curls were swept back off her innocent, wide-eyed face and caught in a gold
clasp at the back of her head. She was reading aloud from a dark leather-bound
tomb that rested in her lap, the coarse yellow leaves rustling as she turned
The sound of the girl’s mellow voice, full of the soft northern accent of
the Boarchase, distracted Caspar. He stopped in his tracks, contemplating her
privately for a moment before she was aware of his presence. Wistfully, he
noticed how the early morning sun slanting through the window spangled the
burnished colours of her hair. May was not so attractive as Brid but she still
made his heart flutter. Brid was long since lost to Hal and plans for their
wedding were to be made on his young uncle’s return.
The old Crone raised a thin, hideously twisted hand to silence the girl’s
reading. "So, Spar, you have managed to drag yourself away from Necrönd
and deigned to visit me."
Caspar started, his freckled complexion blushing a deep crimson as May turned
in alarm at his unannounced presence. "How did you know?" he
stammered, losing his cultivated composure and feeling foolish.
"I always know. My eyes may be failing me but I’ve not lost my senses.
You’ve grown darkly brooding this past year that you make the air turn cold
about you. Come, sit by the fire. Here at my feet. You seem in need of warmth
and contemplation. Merrymoon, read on." The ancient high priestess always
insisted on calling May by her given name.
May rose, offering a polite curtsey to the son of her liege-lord. "Lord
Caspar," she stammered.
"Don’t. Please," he hissed as he settled himself at the old Crone’s
feet. Try as he might he had failed to make the girl feel comfortable with him.
She seemed afeard of his friendship and, even after three years of politely
trying to court her, she still kept him aloofly at arm’s length. "Please
call me Spar," he begged.
May drew her legs closer towards her chest, tucking her woollen skirt neatly
around her ankles in retreat, and flitted him one brief enigmatic look before
returning to the tome in her lap.
"Oh, May, please—" the Baron’s son started to protest but
stopped when Morrigwen turned her frosted white eyes on him, searching
helplessly for his features.
"Leave her be, Spar, and sit," she commanded imperiously.
Caspar could not disobey. Though he was the son of one of the most powerful
barons in Belbidia, the old Crone still intimidated him though he liked to
pretend she did not.
"Read on, Merrymoon." Morrigwen slumped back into her creaking
rocking-chair while the girl fumbled for her place.
"‘And before the old Crone should die, the Maiden must seek
throughout the world to find her successor.’" May stopped in her
tracks. "Must I read this, Morrigwen? It speaks of things that should
remain unspoken … It is not yet time …"
"Child, I despair of you. It is well beyond time. Would you have me
suffer in this decrepit, aching body forever? Brid is shortly to be married -
that is, if ever that arrogant young man returns from doing the King’s bidding
in Farona. When that happens she cannot be the Maiden any more. And, besides, do
you honestly believe I will see it through another winter? We must find the
child who will, in turn, take on the responsibilities of the Maiden, the Mother
and the Crone and we must find her quickly. The Trinity of high priestesses must
Her swollen fingers clawed impassionedly at the arm of her chair. She took
short wheezing breaths before bursting out angrily, "Who will continue the
work to guide the people in the ways of the Great Mother? There will be
pestilence and more plagues. There is so much more work to be done. Two years
ago, when half the spring lambs in Ovissia died of a failing sickness, I thought
the landlord farmers would listen to us and turn to our ways, just as the common
folk were doing. Didn’t you?" she demanded of Caspar.
He nodded compliantly, wishing only to quiet her outrage for fear that her
anger might suddenly be too much for her frail body.
"After the loss of the lambs," she continued, "I thought they
would see that the sicknesses were due to the excessive numbers of sheep they
farmed but instead the farmers only made things worse. To counter their losses,
they have done nothing but increase their stock numbers. I know the common folk,
who daily feel the soil beneath their feet, understand but the powerful and the
rich want more power and more riches and in the end there will be nothing for
any of us. The sickness will get worse. They disturb the balance of Nature and
now, even here in Torra Alta, we are forced to cull the wolves. They blame the
wolves on us because we preach that they should live to maintain the balance,
but of course the wolves are moving south when there are so many sick lambs to
be had there. I have not enough years left in me to make them understand!"
Her voice rose with anguish and, again, she beat the arms of her rocking-chair
with clenched fists. "What will become of the Yellow Mountain wolf if we do
not soon find a new Maiden? Those that hate the old ways will triumph and all
will be lost."
"But there is no one now who actively opposes the ways of the Old
Faith," the auburn-haired youth protested. "Even King Rewik has
permitted us to worship as we wish."
"Dear, dear Spar, how ever could you have been born so innocent? There
are always enemies. Your own uncle, Gwion, lived alongside you, his evil intent
festering for twelve years, and not once did you smell it." She shuddered.
"And to think I brought him up as my own son. You killed him, Spar, but you
cannot free me from the haunting memory of his evil. It’s like he’s still in
this room, trying to poison me with his foul breath where he failed with the
fang-nettle. I wish you had brought his body home or at least found it. Often I
fear he did not really die."
She fell silent for a while, sorrowfully lost in regretful contemplation
before returning to the point. "Of course there are many who still oppose
the Old Faith. The greed of the wealthy stops them from hearing our quiet voice
of reason and their recent losses turn them further away from the path."
Caspar rubbed at his nose, resentful that the priestess had made him seem
foolish in front of May. Though the girl’s hazel eyes remained lowered to the
page, he still felt that she was assessing him. But she showed no sign of
heeding their exchange and softly continued to read aloud from the ancient text.
"‘Heed that the Maiden be of innocent age when she is ordained into
the Trinity for only then will she fully learn the secrets of the ancient ways.
Without father and without mother must she be to avoid prejudice and favour.
With the wild gleaming eyes of the old ways this child, blessed by the Great
Goddess, will be found under a favourable moon. Love her dearly for she is the
future, the spring of all hopes, the vessel of our ancient words, bearing them
to the never ending generations of tomorrow.’"
Morrigwen sighed and raised her hand for the girl to stop. "I have twice
performed the search. Once for Keridwen and once for Brid. In both instances the
search took many years. Would that I had started this quest long since but the
signs were not favourable. Now each new dawn for three years without fail, I
have cast the rune stones and each day they have been unfavourable - until this
morning. Today I cast the runes and they told me that somewhere on the face of
the Mother Earth, a new chapter in history has begun. The search must commence.
She must be found." The ancient Crone paused in her croaking speech, her
breath coming in hoarse gasps. "Then will I die at peace. For I have waited
long enough for this release. The cycle of life, death and rebirth must be
completed. My body pains me." She moaned and let her head droop onto her
Caspar presumed she had fallen asleep and began to rise but as he did so, she
snapped her head up and croaked angrily at him, "Build the fire up,
May blushed at the abrupt tone used towards the Baron’s son.
Caspar smiled, untroubled by the form of address. Once, perhaps, he would
have been wounded by such demeaning treatment, but he didn’t care now; his
confidence had grown in the years since his mother’s return and he would come
of age by the end of the summer. He knew he was nearly a man and that was all
that mattered. He collected wood from a willow basket at the far side of the
room and brought it to the hearth.
"No, boy, no," Morrigwen scolded. "Not ash, not
Nuin. Burn the hazelwood, burn Coll. It is my only strength now. The smoke enhances my inner
senses and hones my intuition. Such is all that is left to me now."
As Caspar sought through the log basket, carefully selecting the slender
brown-grey branches of hazel, Morrigwen let her head slump against the
fur-covered back of her rocking-chair. Her fingers, the joints swollen and
crooked, worried over the shards of smooth bone in her cupped palm, each
time-worn piece engraved with a single sigil. "I trust you have paid heed
to your lessons in the use of runes," she croaked at the youth.
He nodded and, remembering that the old woman could no longer see through the
opaque white layer that glazed her once vivid blue eyes, coughed and muttered,
"Yes, Morrigwen, of course."
She grunted sceptically. "Then carve
APPENDIX NOTE 2], Kano the rune of fire on that hazel log."
Caspar felt for the small knife that he kept in his belt. "The rune of
fire carved on hazel should bring a flash of insight," he said brightly,
keen to demonstrate his knowledge.
Morrigwen’s eyebrows rose in brief surprise and a faint smile stretched
smooth the crinkled lips of her toothless mouth. "Mind you carve it neatly
and with the love of the Great Mother in your heart. I must divine what the
fates have prepared for us."
Painstakingly, he etched the rune into the grain of the wood. "Great
Mother, open our eyes and lend us the sight," he murmured and tossed it
into the fire.
Again a rare smile flickered across the old Crone’s face. "We’ll
make a true runelord of you yet, Spar."
Caspar grinned at the unexpected and uncustomary warmness in the old woman’s
tone and, as he raised his face to study her expression, he was surprised to see
that the crepey folds around her mouth and eyes had already sagged into the
relaxation of sleep. Her mouth lolled open and a gentle snore escaped in uneven
snuffles from her throat. May rose and pressed her palms around the woman’s
blue-white hands, her eyebrows slanting as she drew them together in concern.
Though the Crone slept, Caspar was loath to leave the chamber: the air was
too charged with sorcery. He sensed the hazelwood smoke opening up the channels
of magic. He crossed to a low stool and sat breathing in the sweet homely smell,
letting his imagination dance with the flames, surging and fading with the wild
energies of the fire. He wondered briefly how his young uncle Hal fared on his
journey to the court of King Rewik. No doubt he would be riding with Ceowulf as
planned. The youngest son of the Baron of Caldea, Ceowulf, had spent the winter
with their neighbour, Baron Bullback of Jotunn, after marrying his daughter,
On the day of his departure Hal had loudly announced that he would set the
date for his own wedding on his return. Caspar gulped back his torn emotions,
remembering how Brid had laughed delightedly, though there had been a hint of
reservation in her smile.
He had overheard her whispering to Hal, "You don’t know what you’re
saying. I am one of the Three." He had noted her quick glance towards the
Caspar’s mind embraced the vivid image of Brid’s lithe form.
"Brid!" The Crone lurched forward in her chair, dropping the runes
as she woke abruptly from her sleep. The sigil-carved bones clattered across the
floor, sending the scarlet salamander scurrying to cower beneath May’s stool.
"Whatever’s the matter?" May demanded, glancing between Morrigwen
and Caspar who had already leapt to his feet.
The Crone waved a dismissive hand, while placing the other across her chest
to still her fluttering heart. "Just a dream. I dreamt of Brid." She
squinted at Caspar. "You want to know where she is, Spar?" May
wrinkled her nose uncomfortably. "You’ll find her down by the inner
portcullis." Morrigwen looked distractedly around the room before finally
craning forward and squinting at the runes scattered on the floor. "What do
they say?" she demanded.
"It’s Brid’s signature rune; the rune of the Maiden," May told
her plainly and without warmth.
Caspar scooped up the fallen bones and placed them in Morrigwen’s open
palm. As he did, the sound of shouting from the courtyard below drifted up to
the high turret room.
With unnatural haste and firmness for one so old, the woman grasped his
wrist. "Spar, find out what the problem is and see to it," she
ordered, releasing him and sitting back in her rocker. "Merrymoon, read
on," she added and shut her eyes.
Caspar was only halfway down the stairs of the west tower when he heard Brid’s
voice rising above the commotion. Normally soft and melodious, today it was
steely cold with anger. Though her voice was hardly raised, the chill in it cut
colder even than the crisp Horning air. Anxiously Caspar quickened his pace.
"You evil man!" Brid snarled. "That wolf was nursing. Look at
the pelt! The teats are swollen. Did you murder her cubs too?"
"It was not murder." The trapper looked uncertainly from his shaggy
long-maned horse with its grisly burden to the young lady who stood before him
in riding leathers, breeches and a thick bearskin cloak about her shoulders. A
white, squat terrier with black slit-eyes glinting in an ugly heavy-boned skull,
bristled at her heels. The dog’s ears were laid flat against its bulbous
short-muzzled skull. The trapper’s long-legged wiry-haired hound retreated
with its tail between its legs and growled nervously. "It’s the tax, you
know, the Wolf Tax, lass." He seemed uncertain of Brid’s station.
"It’s good King Rewik’s way of ridding the country of these beasts. It’s
me duty … um, miss, my lady, um, miss."
His eyes flitted between the girl’s plain clothes, the silver torcs
adorning her arms and the simple circlet that graced her high forehead, pinning
back the coppery brown hair from her face.
"So were there cubs or not?" Brid demanded furiously. "King
Rewik is a fool. It’s all so cruel and unnecessary. The Yellow Mountain wolf
is already scarce and seldom troubles man. If I had true power in this land I
would stop this barbarism. The tax should apply only to the hooded wolf. All you
trappers care about is the money. One hundred wolf pelts is far too high a toll.
They cannot survive it."
The man shrugged. "I thought that was very much the idea, but I’m not
here to philosophize, miss. I’ve simply brought their pelts to the castle so I
can collect what’s due to me." The trapper sounded almost sure of himself
but the flicker of confidence faded from his eyes as Caspar’s mother swept
across the courtyard towards them. Her fine cloths and glittering jewellery made
it quite clear that she was of notable status. The trapper turned and bowed
Caspar quickened his pace to join his mother. A crowd was quickly gathering
around the tall trapper, who hunched his shoulders defensively, his dark
scratchy beard mingling into the stained hairs of his wolf-skin cloak. His
sullen eyes looked guardedly around him. "Madam, I’ve done no harm,"
he addressed Keridwen. "The young lady accuses me of murder though I do
only as is right and lawful."
The crowd pressed forward and Caspar knew he should be doing something to
defuse the situation.
"He’s not from these parts," an archer ventured, "otherwise
he would know better than to come here with a nursing wolf, a mother wolf."
Caspar raised his right hand high above his head and cleared his throat to
speak. "Men, please—"
"Stand aside!" Baron Branwolf’s booming tones filled the
courtyard. "What commotion disturbs the ease of my castle?"
Silence clamped its hand over the men and the crowd respectfully parted at
the approach of Baron Branwolf. Thick-set and greying, the Baron swept back his
heavy bearskin cloak from his shoulders, revealing a blackened hauberk. Though
patched and repaired and long past its prime, it was obviously an old faithful
friend, too valued to be cast out. The only mark of his baronial status was a
blocky ring upon the little finger of his left hand and the confident glint of
authority in his olive-green eyes. With a flick of his hand, he gestured for all
to stand back while he dealt with the disturbance.
The archers hastily retreated and Caspar dutifully moved aside though both
Keridwen and Brid remained firmly put. Small statured women with vivid eyes and
neat elven features, both were too furiously intent on the trapper to withdraw.
"What’s the problem here?" the Baron asked.
"He’s taken a nursing wolf! A mother wolf!" Brid accused,
pointing at the long blood-drenched skin that hung limply from the buckles of
the trapper’s saddle. The man was clad in padded skins, dingy and stained from
the snows. His wolf pelt cloak, fair hair and long lean body immediately set him
apart from those around him. Torra Altans were, for the most part, dark and
heavily built, save for those like Brid, Caspar and his mother who had the
delicate features, reddish-toned hair and bright eyes of the old tribes.
As Branwolf looked the skins over, the trapper began to fidget uncomfortably.
"I didn’t see no cubs, sir. I get paid the same price for a wolf whether
she’s with cubs or not so I didn’t think to look, sir." He withdrew
from the Baron’s glare and sidled to the far side of his horse while the
nobleman studied the skins.
Impatient with anger, Brid moved to draw the Baron’s attention to the
pelt but Keridwen caught the young priestess’s hand and pulled her back.
"My lord Branwolf, have this man paid and dismissed. What’s done is
done." Her voice was cool and dispassionate.
"I’ve not done yet!" Brid would not be silenced. "Where did
you murder this wolf?" She stabbed her finger at the tall trapper. "At
least we can save her cubs."
"Save, my lady? Save wolflings?" He looked helplessly towards the
Baron. "Sir?" The man’s confusion had evidently made him forget his
The Baron’s presence pervaded the castle and there was rarely call for him
to raise his voice. "You’re not from this barony, are you, trapper?"
he stated calmly as if talking to a child. "The slaying of a mother wolf in
these parts is regarded as an affront to the Great Mother. The mother wolf is a
sacred beast. And these are all Yellow Mountain wolves. You and your fellow
trappers should put your skills to culling the hooded wolves that are causing
all the problems." He nodded sagely, giving the man time to absorb his
words. "So, trapper, where are you from? I would know whose men are in my
The trapper took a pace back from the nobleman’s intimidating presence.
"Ovissia, sir," he replied succinctly, looking sideways at Brid before
turning his attention to the lead-rein that he fumbled between his fingers.
Caspar might have guessed. Not only did the barony of Ovissia refuse to
embrace the Old Faith, but also its livelihood was based on sheep farming. The
hatred of the wolf was bound to run deep there.
"A sacred mother wolf! He’s slain a sacred mother wolf; the animal
that gives more to its offspring than any other. What will befall us now? What
evil has he brought on us?" Brid was incensed.
"One hundred wolves a year," Keridwen bemoaned the toll. "Branwolf,
you must do something. The Yellow Mountain wolf faces extinction yet the numbers
of hooded wolves increase monthly. What does King Rewik hope to achieve?"
The Baron managed to ignore his wife and said with finality, "Trapper,
take your pelts to the tanner. He’ll pay you your dues. This business is
finished," he declared loudly, turning on his heels and sending his men
scurrying back to their posts. Keridwen swirled round, her loose skirts ruffling
belatedly like a mist disturbed by the breeze, and hurried after him.
Caspar didn’t know what to think. Branwolf could hardly defy Rewik in this
matter. After the huge costs of the Vaalakan war, the country was weak and
vulnerable; the baronies had to remain united. Torra Alta had suffered most, its
garrison all but annihilated. Nowadays the fortress seemed to ring with the
high-pitched voices of the new recruits. They were youths and boys enlisted from
the outlying countryside, sons of woodcutters and huntsmen mainly. Caspar knew
it would be many years before even half those wishing to be archers would be
strong or skilled enough to draw a full-sized Torra Altan war bow. The fields
far below in the canyon were permanently laid out for practice.
Still flecked with sweat from the arduous climb up the spiralling road to the
castle, the trapper’s horse plodded across the slippery cobbles towards the
tannery. Brid paced after him in defiance of the Baron’s wishes and Caspar
fell in alongside.
"How could he? A she-wolf with cubs." Brid glowered at Caspar as if
it were his fault. "We must find the cubs. We must do everything we
can to save them and lessen the evil that will befall us for allowing the
slaughter of a mother wolf. You will make him say where he killed her."
Caspar nodded. Whatever his father had commanded he could not deny
Together they watched as the trapper tied his horse to a ring in the stone wall
outside the tannery.
The tannery was tucked behind a wall downwind of the kitchens and was entered
through a low arched door. Inside a wizened old man with hands wrinkled like the
shell of a walnut stirred and prodded at the contents of one of several large
vats filled with rusty brown liquid in which sheets of skin bobbed and glugged.
The trapper had already taken his skins inside. Caspar recoiled at the smell. He
was unaccustomed to having a tannery within the fortress walls since the work
had previously been carried out in local villages but with the introduction of
the Wolf Tax the tannery had been moved to the castle. Under the king’s edict,
the Baron was responsible for paying the trappers the required amounts for each
dead wolf and the delivery of the cured pelts to Farona, the wealthy capital of
The tanner bowed his head politely as Caspar and Brid marched into the
tannery. "Good morning, Master Spar, my Lady Brid. You look troubled."
"The wolf." Caspar pointed at the blue-grey pelt.
The tanner nodded in immediate recognition and sadly stroked the downy hide.
"Aye, this one had cubs." He glowered at the trapper whilst sorting
through the rest of the skins. "They’re all Yellow Mountain wolves so you’ll
only get the lower payment. I’ve had just the one hooded wolf this year as
yet." He nodded towards the large skin pulled taut on stretchers at the end
of the room. It was a big pelt, at least half as big again as the other skins
around it, the hairs of its dark granite-coloured hide short and coarse. It had
a black face and a thick black shaggy mane that rose to a tuft between its ears,
giving it its name. The curved eye-teeth looked as long and as lethal as those
of a large mountain cat.
The trapper shrugged. "If you don’t mind I’ll have me money and be
"First you’ll tell us where you killed the she-wolf," Caspar
said, struggling to keep his voice calm.
"To the west. I’ve not been long in these mountains and I’m not so
sure of the local names for each peak and valley."
Caspar was piqued that the man seemed unintimidated by his displeasure but
reasoned that by his very nature a trapper would have to be a hardened and
self-reliant man to survive out in the harsh mountains alone. "Beyond
Mirror Lake? The high tarn whose still waters reflect vividly the ring of peaks
"Oh aye, if that’s its name, way beyond. And beyond that high pass
with the jagged white peaks."
"The Jaws of the Wolf."
"Yeah, near there. I got this one on the lower slopes towards the Chase.
I saw several of them big hooded beasts up there in the pass. Teeth like daggers
in the moonlight. But I didn’t trap any – more’s the shame."
Brid snorted indignantly. "Traps! Couldn’t you have used a bow?"
"Begging your pardon, my lady, I don’t think you’d bear such a
liking to these beasts if you had first hand knowledge of them. They’re not
like the Yellow Mountain wolf at all and will even attack without the support of
the pack. There’s a cruel intelligence about them that fair chills the soul of
Brid raised her eyebrows and looked disdainfully at the man as if he were
half-witted. "You shouldn’t use traps. It’s barbaric and
indiscriminate. All you’re doing is slaughtering the native Yellow Mountain
wolves who cause no trouble to anyone. It’s the hooded wolves that attack the
livestock of the lowlands."
Brid’s dragon-green eyes fixed him for a long hard moment before she spun
on her heel and hurried to consult Lady Keridwen about what was to be done about
the death of the sacred mother wolf.
Having nothing more to say to the trapper, Caspar walked quickly to the
watch-house where he was overdue to meet May’s younger brother, Pip. Branwolf
had ordered him to see to the day’s training sessions and Caspar wanted the
boy to lay out a range of targets. He had hoped that May would be pleased if he
gave her younger brother some responsibility. He pursed his lips and exhaled
sharply through his crooked nose. Pip was not there. He waited for a moment but
then caught the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked oatcakes and sizzling
venison. Tempted himself, he set off for the kitchens. He knew where he would
"May!" he said in surprise as he turned the corner and nearly
"Master Caspar," she said without smiling, "Morrigwen wants
you again. I’ve been looking all over. Where have you been?"
"With Brid," he said innocently.
The girl’s slanted eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly and, to
smile seemed sad in response to his grin of warm welcome.
"Of course," she said simply, her tone becoming more aloof. "Morrigwen
wishes to see you." She turned abruptly and walked away, leaving Caspar
wondering how he had offended her.
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