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Lament of Abalone

First of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell TrilogyLament 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 Necrönd, 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 & Schuster

          ISBN 0-671-01787-x

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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 her body.

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 pelt.

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 yet.

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 wolfling, was 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 her.

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 warm coat.

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 the crags.

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 slime-coated steps.

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 through.

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 flint.

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 anticipation.

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 afraid?

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 them.

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 doors.

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 you."

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 command.

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 them.

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 survive."

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 chest.

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, boy."

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 K[SEE RUNE 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, Cybillia.

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 older priestesses.

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 awkwardly.

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 grey-blue 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 situation.

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 barony."

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 Brid. 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 Belbidia.

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 gone."

"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 around it."

"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 a man."

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 find Pip.

"May!" he said in surprise as he turned the corner and nearly flattened her.

"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 Caspar, her 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.

Hope you enjoyed this and didn't find it too much of a strain on your eyes.

Anyway let me know what you think my e-mail address is janewelch@janewelch.com


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