They woke in the dark again.
A wolf was howling in the woods. Grimly, Cwyn growled, “Meraig,” like a curse, which he probably was.
There was also the problem of a dead singer on the ground among the blue-gray twigs.
Should they go? Should they stay, and honor him with some kind of burial? Shifting his body filled them with ice: a bard’s golden harp above the ruin of his chest cavity. Mab reached for it with trembling fingers, his whole arm black with dried blood. As his fingers grazed the gold, it seemed the glade trembled, and he cried out as the snake bracelet on his arm bit into his flesh. Fresh blood trickled down, the wolf barked and receded. Frantically, Cwyn worked to release the clamp of the bracelet that constricted Mab’s meaty arm. Finally with some patient stroking, the serpents’ eye in the armlet twinkled, and its fangs released.
They argued about flight and fire. They were not where they had gone to sleep. The great clear farms and plains around Ionad were in sight in no direction. Brugán the Grey hurried overhead in the sky, tugging at their hearts.
As they laid waxy holly leaves over the body, and prepared to depart, a wide white toothy grin separated itself from the darkness, and a mournful white muzzle appeared around them. The Vulfen said, in clear High Speech, infected with the cadence of the wolf people, “Still the spirit lingers, and the Singing Woman’s presence shakes the air. Fire is good.”
With small fingers of rowan, and heavy arms of elms they built a pyre for the bard whose name they did not know. The waxy rowan leaves would make the fire roar. While they worked, the Vulfen, who introduced himself as “Poorly Given”, said how lucky they were to carry around such Godsblood treasures as they did, as that is surely what must have protected them from the Filadh’s death curse.
The fire blazed and warmed their chilled flesh. The Vulfen wondered what a bandraoi and a godson were doing in the RowanOak, and what import there might be in their completing the goal of his life walk, his hom-ba-ka’aia. The Bard… something had happened to him, or he had given himself over to something. He had become Hollow, empty. He had killed many vulfen. The Vulfen had taken a journey name, Precipice and decided to follow the bard and end his life, and then surely Precipice would pass from the world as well, and walk as one of the stars across the sky with his ancestors.
As the fire raged, and they could almost hear the music of Macháin mourning her son lost to the world, Cwyn felt the cold grip of the mist upon him. Precipice was saying something about his gift. The White Lady whispered again in his ear, “Bryn Dwr”, which means “Green Mountain” in the Low Tongue.
They ate some jerky and trail bread that Precipice had with him. They were tired, and slept again. Their dreams were in the half-worlds, the bright worlds, the mist.
In the morning, Precipice had hunted them up some rabbits, which they roasted over an entirely different fire. None of them knew of a place called Green Mountain. Precipice knew that the capitol was not nearby, but that there was a Charcoaler’s place just beyond the woods a few miles away.
They asked Precipice how he knew so much – about spirits, the world, them. He said he was old, and knew very little, but still could see fairly well. He said he was at the ends of his purpose, and was intrigued by their work, and would accompany them. Cwyn wondered about being rescued in the woods by a wolf. He though about the wolf’s head on Meraig’s ring.
There were 3 huts around the burning pits. Cwyn’s vision, full of the white world and the wood, understood everything at once: the hut trailing white smoke where the deer was being set up to smoke. The hut where the hot trees lay unattended, slowly turning to coal, the hut where a young man and a young woman had doused hot stones with water and were adding to their sweat with the vigor that happens between a young man and woman.
There was a mother by a big pond with her three young children, absorbed by the green grass and the rare sun of Mí na Mabon (the month of Mabon).
There was an ancient fitted stone structure from the time of the Five Kings standing proud by an old road. Around was fitted the ramshackle modern wooden dwelling of a family. The grey smoke from the stone chimney told a story of old people inside on a cool morning by the fire.
Precipice said he would take the measure of the woods and await them. Unwatched, Cwyn and Mab approached the stone house. In its lintel were characters of the low script, and Cwyn said aloud, with some curiosity, “Hope….”
Old hinge-depressions told a story of an ancient stone door that was no longer there. An affair of wicker and ash made a clattery closure for the door, with an embroidered curtain behind it.
The old man who answered the door regarded them with some speculation behind the length of his pale beard. They told him a story of being lost in the woods, and a drunken Mabon night. A woman’s voice scolded him for failing the Laws of Hospitality.
The matron poured them tea as they looked over the game of Scandubh (Black Board) they were playing. The smaller white team with its white king were carved of polished white granite, graven with old and serious features. The larger black team was the heads of P’antrí carved of jet infused with streaks of green malachite, making the cats appear to have strange hairdos, or green masks of varying types. The board was a sheet of old stone, worn smooth by playing so that the playing grid was a rumor and the knotwork border was a snake.
They asked about the Green Mountain, and the light, deflective banter of old people faded away. The woman closed the curtain over the one high window and the man checked on his daughter by the lake with her children, then pulled it tight.
Who were they really, and why were they here? the old couple wondered. Mabon had been a week past, and it could not have taken so long to get here from the capitol. What were they playing at?