dragon-drawing-2

Dragon’s Teeth

Morning came too soon for Aerin’s restless mind and the cloud strained the rising sun such that a deep white bore down through the open hut window to cause her eyes to flicker. It was the first light of dawn. It burned beyond her lids and she saw yellow star crystals amongst the pinkish tinge of her own blood vessels pumping. There was nothing for it. She rose belligerently from her shaky slumber. Her night’s sleep had been filled with fraught images; shadowy beings had become demons; friends faces had become aggressive foe. She cat-stretched and clicked her bones as she did so feeling beads of sweat clinging to her brow she let them do so. She turned towards Orpheus’ hammock to see him still sound asleep so she swept her head to glance up at the cloudy grayed early light that had woken her. All of a sudden she stood bolt upright off her gently rocking hammock but did not take her fixed hardened stare away from the window. She had heard something, or thought she heard something…coming, though what she was not sure. Perhaps she had dreamt it, maybe it was more of a feeling than a knowing but still she remained fixated by what lay beyond the window. She took note that her skin too had bobbled with goose bumps and her hairs pricked upright causing that unusual coarse sensation when touched. It was as if all her senses had become suddenly alive, heightened and intensified in but a moment. What had made her nervous? Eventually she side-stepped as quiet as she could muster from her hammock and sheltered just inside the barn doorway. The barn door had been left swung open on its rusty hinges all evening to “save us from its squeaks night long and let tha’ gentle breeze come through” and so Aerin could lean coolly on the frame, blocking half the entrance, to listen to the darkness. As she did so there was a rustle from Orpheus’ hammock and he quickly joined her side mimicking her side-step motion to join her at the door.
“Did I disturb you, Orpheus?” said Aerin through a thin whisper of words from the side of her mouth, not turning her head but said to mark his presence.

“No, but some’t else did, of what I’m no sure. Oi was chilled but not by wind.”

Orpheus had gathered up his robe as he left his slumber and strapped on his belt as he stood.

“Indeed” Aerin continued, “I have a sense of foreboding, that I have experienced only one time before.”

Orpheus nodded and replied “then we should seek higher groun’ an’ a good vantage point, or a’least look a’them skois for ‘elp”.

He pressed one hand on her stiffened should and Aerin allowed herself to be turned back into the hut. He pointed at their bags strewn on the floor and continued in a low voice “Oi ‘av some hunger too, an’ need o’ things, we moight as well gather our stuff now – arms an’ all, for oi fear we may be required to move wi’ speed when ‘morrow stirs.”

Aerin did not question where they would be moving too – for she had her own path to follow but had never requested nor implied to Orpheus that he were to accompany her to Avernus and yet she was hopeful. They packed their few possessions and sought to creep back out into the crisp cool light of a mountain’s morn. They buckled their legs and slinked beside walls and trees where possible to move out of Goonbell village till their feet met grass and gorse as they trod along a little-used path further up into the mountain. The sweet smell of dew-buds swept onto forest green made the journey most pleasant but that strange anxiety that grows within could not be quelled by the delight of a morning stroll. They climbed still higher towards a strange rock formation cut inward on a large rock shelf overhanging the far eastern corner. The concave rock enveloped them and the way became cramped so that they bent their backs low and progressed slowly minding their footholds on the narrow edge as small stones dislodged and dropped the many feet below. Afer a few yards of walking dragged over like elders bent by years of hard labour the way became more bearable as the cut path moved still higher until they emerged on top of the cliff but buried in greenery. They pushed their way through heavy bracken till they approached a string of sharp rocks that emerged from the ground like jagged teeth laid in a circle. Here they dropped their bags and made to wait. Orpheus exposed his belt by flicking back his cloak to show a long knife which he drew from this position, passing it to Aerin. “This ‘ere’s for you, if you’s need it”. Aerin felt the weight of the blade and tossed the handle from side to side, then placed it in her belt, “I fear I may be ever thankful for it” said Aerin, “though do you not need it for yourself?” Orpheus chuckled and tapped the wooden encasing that hung from his back, “oi ‘av moi trusty spears, don’ need nowt else.”

They climbed up the teeth rocks quickly before then ascending a tall pine tree that had taken a difficult path of growth, launching its roots between the jagged rocks causing it to grow at a bizarre angle, leaning out over the rocky edge. Here, high up in the tree, did the two finally take shelter, resting in the tree’s misshapen crown on the thickest branch they could find. They took to hanging their bags off a higher limb of the pine tree as though dead carcasses waiting for butcher then found some nook to sit between to eat a little of the bread and cheese Orpheus had bartered for at the store. They looked to the skies and noted the pole star and its position in alignment with the stone circle that they did sit within. Aerin pointed out the circumpolar constellation of Tawaret, the goddess of the northern sky that she read of as a child, and its proximity to the celestial pole causing it to never set (that is, to never disappear below the horizon). Aerin explained to Orpheus what she had learned many years ago about imaginary celestial lines and the earth’s movement upon them. Orpheus was intrigued by this knowledge and told Aerin that the guild of Goonbell had spent many a year studying the night skies and often noted much the same positioning. He told her of great sky maps created from many hundreds of years of study that lay in the village, but that he merely used his more simple understanding of the night sky to determine his direction and sometimes his position within Ordesa. He named the constellation as Draco, a mighty dragon who’s large tale stretched and coiled about the northern pole. They did not see for two hours or more the thing that caused their waking, but they knew it would come, eventually.

Later, when the sun was still higher in the sky though the village still not at its waking, they noted that a strange mist had crept over the northern edge of the mountain and seemed to be moving quickly (“quickers that th’devil” remarked Orpheus). Then, in the distance, a mile or so beyond the river Aerin and Orpheus noticed that a forest fire had started, flames were ripping through the trees, licking the night’s greyed underbelly. They watched aghast as the flames crept towards the riverbank feeling their heat caress bare flesh. Yet the night was not warm and the wind was not blowing, so how was the fire moving so quickly, they wondered? And then they heard it, the fearsome roar that shook Aerin’s soul and the branch on which they sat. The roar bellowed and echoed about the mountain, finding every corner and wrestling with it. If the village had not been awake, it would be now. Then, above the mountain they saw a reptilian dragon, its scaly form descending quickly upon the forest, its knife-like teeth exposed as it flashed its fiery tongue and sealed the fate of another row of pines as they met their ashy end. The dragon swept its great head from side to side, whilst, malicious intent it scoured the land for signs of life and movement, yet it found none. The village was obscured sufficiently by stone and woods still that the dragon had not spotted its location for it appeared intent upon striking the other side of the river. Eventually the lizard-beast’s great webbed wings flapped and it did rise majestically in the air and flew away to the north with an angry roar and a final blast of flame. It had not found what it was looking for. With it flew Aerin and Orpheus’ breath that left their mouths in excess as they dared emit the sigh that had been building in their chests along with their fears as they had watched the dragon’s progress. Was this their last sight of the dragon? Aerin did not believe it to be so, in which case the pertinent but dangerous question that was then hanging on their lips was ‘when?’ When will the dragon return for Goonbell?

The Guild of Goonbell

Mage_Male_Robe_Sketches[WEB]
Village that would not be found
Oh hearty stone carv’d from old ground
Treasur’d Goonbell will rise everlastin’ loik the sky
For nought but those who knows where it lie
Do pass through such hardy land to spy
Our fair Goonbell.
Keep peace with the land and forever we cry
Fair Goonbell
Fair Goonbell
Fair Goonbell.”

The Song of Goonbell’s Guild.

Aerin woke to silence; a deep tranquility that would muffle even the most fractious of minds. They had slept in the back of Cesonius’ hut as he had kindly offered (Orpheus had no property of his own in the village) where Aerin had laid down willingly to rest her head. There was the occasional squawking of unnamed birds circling Goonbell as they played in the rising thermal lifts – maybe a raptor, vulture, stork or some such bird. They would soon soar higher than the mountain and bury themselves above the clouds and peace would return once more. The bed was hard but Aerin’s well-travelled bones were grateful for its structure. The dry mud floor was generously covered with hay that smelt wondrous warm and gave much the same grateful feeling to the soul as sitting by an open fire when returning from a long day spent doused in the water spilt by an unrelenting God. Yellow golden whisps caught sunlight’s chalky rays as though the hut itself was a rare hourglass lifted up to the inescapable sky. Aerin rose only when she heard the clammering and clattering of pots and pans and quickened her dress when she presumed the immence of food as the deep smoky musk of Orpheus and Cesonius’ pipes mixed as though born to do so with burning bacon fat. They eat quickly straight from the pan, dipping great chunks of bread in the dark meaty liquor whilst swirling coffee grind down their gullet with consumate ease and chewing the fat about this and that.

Soon the morning wore long so they took to stretch their legs around the village and “find ourselves proper lodgin’s”. Further in, Aerin spotted women and men together ringing fabric in large stone tubs to dye the cloth ready to be worn by he villagers. Aerin asked Orpheus what fabric it was that they were dyeing, Orpheus answered “’Emp, ‘Emp always ‘emp, toughest, longest lastin’ fabric there is”. Orpheus had laughed earlier at the state of Aerin’s garments as they had emmerged from the forest, ripped to shreads by the undergrowth. Orpheus showed off his clothes, the hardy hemp that stood up to all abrasion of rock and forest, “Oi may not ‘ave the cleanest cloth aroun’ but it’s the best” he said knowingly giving that ever-present smile of his. He promised therefore to donate his old robe to Aerin and directed her straight down a small dirt track to an old barn. In the barn was a row of hammocks hanging off a central beam, around twenty in total. Next to each hammock were a lamp, a large metal chest, a wooden cabinet and a large cylindrical wooden encasing, the contents of which changing with each hammock. One bared a sword, another a sythe, another a bow. Orpheus walked over to one hammock and placed upon it his sack, and gestured for Aerin to do the same with hers. Orpheus then bared a necklace that hung about his neck and took the key that hung about it. He walked towards the metal case and placed the key within its lock, in the case he deposited all his food and drink. After closing the case he rolled his tobacco upon it and packed his pipe. Then, as he puffed merrily away once more he quickly scurried about in the wooden cabinet and emerged first with a spare hammock that they quickly hung next to Orpheus’ own, then a blackened hemp smock and cloak that he offered to Aerin. It was a good quality piece that Aerin gladly accepted and put on immediately. As Aerin changed into the new clothes Orpheus peeled the sole off his boots and proceded to deftly nail the new sole the old boots. After a few moments he was happy with the finished product and tested his work out with a few steps about the barn, “good as new” said Orpheus. He clapped his hands with joy when Aerin emerged in her new wear and scampered to his bag again to remove some bread and cheese, offering half to Aerin. “We mus’ eat an’ stroide oi fear, for we mus’ seek the counsel of the guild of Goonbell abou’ this trouble you’s speak of, for it canno’ wait no longer!” Aerin nodded in agreement, her mouth already crammed full with food.

And so the pair bared the burden of their lamps and trundled a fair way up a winding narrow cobbled path cut deep into the ground so that ferns grew up and over its sides making it invisible at street level. They arrived eventually upon a large courtyard, simply decorated with stone and plant where a group of ten men and women sat sipping tea from large bowls and looking to the hills for inspiration. As Aerin and Orpheus approached the first of the guild stood and bowed shortly to them wearing marked faded purple robes that met the floor in doing so, before holding out his hand saying what Aerin guessed was the general Goonbell salutation “My a dhannvon dhis kara”, the travellers said the greeting in return echoing him before all others there stood and welcome them both into the centre of the courtyard in much the same manner. With no words uttered they formed a circle about Orpheus and Aerin and obligingly gave them audience. Orpheus stepped forward and addressed the guild. “Elders guild o’ Goonbell thank’ee for this counsel. Yet it is wit great sadness an’ warnin’ tha’we stand ‘ere before you. She to my side be Aerin Paean ‘o comes from a walled city Ilus four or more days from tha’ breaks of valley an three days further hence from ‘ere. She spoke me o’ a cripple messenger who had seen death itself in winged beasts at his village but how Ilus had not seen truth in his desp’rate words. She spoke me of all her people, the people of Ilus now dead an’ gone buried in a great ash af’er winged beasts did visit her land!”

There were mumbles then and frightened knowing looks but Orpheus continued. “Even oi did see black smoke risin’ high in the sky weeks gone by of sum great evil workin’s in southern lands, but I thought nowt more of it” he added a little shame-faced.

An old man with greying beard, perhaps the oldest of the elders guild, held his hand up and Orpheus paused as a consequence. The man pulled his hood so as to bare his head and spoke “Ay it is true, we too did mark this change in skoi but could not think of it’s purpose, but there is more. Yee ‘ave done well Orpheus to mark tha’ change an speak o’ it, Paean, I would like to hear your thoughts about this, speak friend of Goonbell.” He beckoned Aerin to step forward as Orpheus had done and smiled to seek her voice.

Aerin answered, “I am Aerin Paean of the great city of Ilus lying o’ weeks way from here. Tis a city that was lost to greed and led to believe there was no land but that which lay within its walls. We were led to believe that nothing would penetrate into the City, that nothing that was stronger than those that protected Ilus yet we were misguided. An old man, the cripple named Hephaestus came upon the city in desperation and spoke of winged beasts and their evil, the death of his village and others, however nought but myself seemed swayed to believe him, all others cast off his voice as that of a madman, disbelieving that such a fate could ever befall our walled city locked us aware in fear, and so the city was destroyed, I and the cripple locked away all lost.”

“I see, I see” said the old guildman, “and these winged beasts have you seen them before anywhere?”

Aerin answered, “only in books”. The old man smiled and the circle muttered in approval “books of the ancients” they muttered, “so all was not lost af’r all” said one. “And why, pray, did you believe this man Hephaestus?” said the old man, “and how did you both escape your imprisonment?”

Aerin thought about both these points and then answered “I don’t know. I had a… feeling.” She paused realising the inadequacy of her repost and sought more to find the right words. “I had read of signums; signs of darkness, a raven had appeared above the city bringing with it a mysterious dark cloud building as if made by… magick.”

There was a murmuring again among the elders. “Continue” said the old guildman after the murmurings had subsided.

“I had read that these signs must not be ignored” said Aerin, fidgeting now and then with a loose thred in her pocket. “My father was a healer and an important man of the city so I spent much time in the library beneath the great halls. Here there a lay a great hidden library beneath the first which contained books cast aside as fiction but that since I have learnt held many truths. I have read of the winged beasts named as Keres, and of the land of Arcadia to the north stretching to the black mountains here and to the south where Hephaestus has head for safety.”

Another old man then spoke, “we too have heard of the keres, dark magic, evil forces that have lingered on our world since the dawn of time to drag those to their doom.”

The first old man shook his head in contemplation, “yes, the keres, it is as we feared. Yet there must be good forces, magical ones too, I might add, at work as we have you quite remarkably in front of us, or at the very least you are lucky!”

“Quite” said Aerin, nodding in agreement. “We escaped the city through my own magick… of sorts”. Orpheus looked curious at Aerin’s disclosure, for she had not told him of such and she did not dare look at him for fear of his disproval. Mentioning magick was never a good thing, in Aerin’s book but since the elders had mentioned it first it seemed appropriate. “That which came over me with great surprise and had been quite beyond my control”.

The old man seemed curious at Aerin’s unwillingness to disclose more detailed information and raised his healthy long eyebrows up along with his arms aloft “what magick be this? Be not ‘fraid for we will not scorn’t.”

“Well” said Aerin clearing her voice for it felt shaky, “firstly I seem to have gained an inept ability to open locked doors” (a lady with a funny hat gave a little chuckle at this). “We arrived at the surface of the city weeks, maybe months later for time tracking had escaped us from being doped to find it long gone. And in my state of great sadness I did sit upon the ash of the city crying desperate tears, my cries mixed with the ash and dried blood to produce a reddened pool in which a green shoot…appeared”.

Orpheus at this moment could contain himself no longer and turned towards Aerin, fairly jumping up and down and spoke to her in a loud booming voice “A green shoot! Nev ha nor! Arwoedh! A sign from ol’ earth, well oi never- an wa’ now was the bless’d shoot, you’s missed tha’ out before, eh?”

“Sorry” said Aerin apologetically looking sheepish she fiddled with her robes belt – I was fearful to mention it.”

Orpheus nodded, “Understan’ you’s came from a place frownin’ on magick, quite roit you was fearful. An’ what happen’d to the shoot?”

“Oh…it grew into an ash tree in a…short period of time (though how short Aerin was not inclined to mention, for the story now was bordering enough upon the unbelievable already, and she was really wanting the guild to believe it, for the preservation of Goonbell.)

An old woman then stood before circle and cast her hood back, “of course, an ol’ ash tree, it has been scribed as such, blud an’ tears ash an’ fears shall yearn such a tree, but what was its purpose?”

Orpheus answered “the purpose of such a tree? Loif an all is ‘portant to me!”

The first old man laughed at Orpheus, “Narjia meant no ‘fence to the tree Orpheus sept it moight mean summit more, tis all.”

“oh” said Orpheus and he fell silent, looking a little sheepish himself.

“Indeed I believe it did!” said Aerin (growing more confident that her wild story was being believed, “it meant to give me a message from those that lived within it. A miriad – a small nymph insisted on directing me to follow the dust road out of the city an’ to find the river from which I found yourselves.” Aerin’s story seemed complete enough for now, and Aerin did not yet mention the lake Avernus underneath the mountain nor ask what could lie beneath it.

“Goodness indeed!” Said Narjia, “miriad spoke to you an’ gave you counsel, an’ spoke o’ Goonbell?”

Aerin added “They did not name Goonbell but mentioned that I should seek the guidance of those that lived in the ‘village that would not be found’ high up in the mountains, near to the valley of Ordesa.”

“Well tha’s settled it” said the oldest of the old men, “you ‘ave our counsel an’ our help in whatever business you needs it, for omens mus’ not be ignored an’ magic mus’ be treasured if loives are to be spared.” The other members of the hooded guild nodded solemnly in agreement. “If we ‘ave read the skois correctly” said another “we ‘ave been mos’ fearful an’ now we mus’ be thankful. Aerin Paean you may fink tha’ you ‘ave cum to talk only of pain an’ loss but you’s ‘ave brought us hope an’ comfort too. An’ so we will seek you both in early mornin’ light for the sun will soon set on this day and we ‘ave much to discuss – long into the night, an’ you both mus’ rest for tomorrow brings more than today.”

And so, on that note, Aerin and Orpheus set off back down the steep cobbled path underneath the ferns sharpen blades, mend clothes and talk themselves long into the night to fall asleep eventually in their hammocks swaying quietly in the little breeze in the barn.

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Goonbell

Goonbell was a small place nestled precisely in a crest of mountain ridges that Aerin thought the village would only likely be visited by those that knew exactly where it was, for it had obviously been constructed in such a place that no living thing could happen to stumble upon it. Smoke billowed of course from fires raging in its heart but as the smoke filled the sky it mixed with the heavy mountain cloudline like grey paint on an artist’s pallette. The village sprung to life behind every clump of trees or heavy gorse bushes. So readily did its wooden huts merge with the forest and bracken that surrounded it that as Aerin and Orpheus walked the few feet from one small clearing to the next what they had seen before them became completely obstructed from view. Aerin dipped her head and stooped at a drinking place where fresh icy water smoothly descended from a stone shelf carved into the rocks that gently directed a small tribute from the river to be used by the village folk. She allowed the clear liquid to pour down upon her hair and neck to wash away the residing dirt before also taking time to clean her hands and scrub the days travelling from her contoured face. After alleviating the distinct mud and dust from her skin she bowed her head lower to drink her full, taking pleasure as the water splashed inside and outside her chapped parched lips, the spilling water caught on another stone slab but occasional splatterings spotting her worn boots. Whilst Aerin drank she thought to herself that if she had not known the village existed but had stumbled upon the first dwelling, she would quite incorrectly have made the assumption that it was a singular hut, perhaps owned by a hermit. The mountain provided great protection cloaking the village with fern, pine, rock and crevice. A steep mountain wall provided shelter from the north and west whilst the remaining directions of sight were covered with thick forest, backed by the river beyond.

On the last two or three hours of Aerin and Orpheus’ journey their progress had been slower and slower as their route bent away from the bristling riverbank, cutting instead through deep forest that had hacked at their clothes fiercly by thorn and bramble. Nettles clung to Aerin’s bare legs and coarsened her skin, whilst sweat had poured from her brow, precipitated down her nose and collected neatly in the collar of her smock as flies had battled about her face that had started out to cause an innate sense of frustration whereby both travellers swiped fruitlessly to dislodge the bugs but ebbed away into reluctant resignation. Though the small mountain village of Goonbell’s location demonstrated an overiding purpose to hide itself from prying eyes and strange beasts its residence appeared very welcoming to Aerin who, it was later proclaimed, was acknowledged to be the first stranger to set foot in Goonbell for six whole years.

By the time Orpheus pulled off his green hood and held for a moment Aerin’s shoulder to guide her into a large shack established on the brim of Goonbell, Aerin’s body seemed to sigh in relief and she gladly was led and pushed down onto a large curved bench that mapped the wall it rested against. Orpheus deposited his large sack by an old man perched on a high stool in the entranceway, opening its draw-cord as he placed it so that stranger could peer into its contents. The old man positioned himself on the edge of his stool and hunched over slightly whilst his left arm rested on his walking stick. Aerin could not make out details of the old man’s face accept the tip of his rugged jaw and the long beard that fell from it since the rest of his face was disguised by the shadow from the owner’s large black rimmed ancient and well-loved helmet. The only action the old man took to acknowledge his two new guests was to tip his curled pipe in their general direction before taking a long draw, allowing the smoke to curl from his lips. Aerin’s attention quickly turned away from the old man towards the intriguing contents of the shambolic shack. Dotted around the wall of the shack (for it was round in shape) were wooden shelves and cabinets liberally situated at odd intervals, which were filled with many interesting objects, jars and potions (the contents of which were of varying consistency, colour and shape none of which Aerin recognised). Upon the hayed mud floor lay numerous large hessian sacks filled with various produce, fruits, vegetables, meats and grains. The hut was adjoined to another and Aerin, if she tilted her head to one side, could peer through its doorway to witness further shelves filled to the rafters with cut wood, another weave, fabric and cloth, another metalwork and arrowheads. Orpheus later told Aerin at supper that much of the goods may then be traded further down river with other tribes, but this was only accepted if with the permission of high council and set forward by the old man whose name was Cesonius. Most of the wares however was to be shared by the village people through all seasons and was carefully stock-piled accordingly. Cesonius furrowed his brow in contemplation of the contents of Orpheus’ sack. He dipped his hand into the bag and pulled out an intriguing-looking fish with large black eyes, circled with red and a silvery body, it was dead of course, but fresh. Orpheus motioned for Aerin to place the sack he had asked her to carry on the floor beside his own burden, which she hurriedly did not taking her eyes off the old man’s bristled lips. She opened it for Cesonius as Orpheus had done, and he seemed to smile. He peered up from his business and looked at his guests for the first time, he smiled broadly and held out his hand to them, much like Orpheus had done when he had first greeted Aerin. “My a dhannvon dhis kara” he croaked in a deep but cracking voice, Orpheus and Aerin repeated the sentence back to him. The ancient then curiously cocked his head first to one side and then the other whilst looking at the two bags of fish and stroked his great long beard. Before long he clapped his hands and beckoned his two visitors towards him stretching out his arms in a fine gesture to the goods stretched out before him. “Wha’ yea wan? Faree moight loiks sum keus, bara an sum sider for your tipple, you’s two ‘av got a lot’ear fish to spend!’ A foin catch Orpheus!”

Indeed Orpheus’ catch did seem wonderously large for it had only taken the pair of them but a few hours to catch on the eve of departure to Goonbell itself. Orpheus had first set his nets across the river right by his hut, stretching from riverbank to riverbank. The nets had glistened in the moonlight as the wee small hours of the morning had passed by. Orpheus after but one hour slipped into the water with a spear in each hand holding them high above his head. As he walked through the water towards his nets he had sung to the fish of their purpose, soothing their final moment. Aerin had seen the fish flicker on the surface of the water and had taughtened the nets. Orpheus then moved swiftly spearing those fish that turned to swim towards him so that before long his spears were full with wedged fish flicking their tails this way and that. He had swiftly signalled for Aerin to begin drawing the nets in, their weight having increased with the catch. As she had begun to pull the nets in Orpheus had launched his spears to shore then dived underwater to help pull the nets in. In exchange for his mighty catch of fish Orpheus chose four large loaves, two good lumps of cheese as well as two bottles of cider, tobacco leaves, a new knife, two cloaks, soap and leather soles for their tired boots. He also took some chicoree grains, beans, wood, rice, half a dozen eggs and several strings of bacon for them both. Lastly he added some new wire for his netting and proclaimed “Tha’ ‘ll do us”. Cesonius handed over two large hessian sacks much like the ones holding the fish and held them open so that Orpheus could place his goods inside them. Once they both were full Aerin hoisted one onto her back and Orpheus did the same onto his own broad shoulders. They shook the old man’s hand and wandered out into the night’s air.

Aerin had asked Orpheus how he knew he was getting a fair deal, what with the lack of pricing structure. Orpheus shook his head in confusion and smiled pointing at his recent acquisitions and proclaiming “fare is fare, fair is fare, ‘ho can put a proice on all tha’ man recquires? Oi would not enjoy my time on’t mountain if oi spen’ moi time cuttin’ all the wood oi need for the year an’ make all these nets an’ spears. Who can put a proice on happiness? As oi see it, oi gives sum of moi catch to the village that grew ‘n’ nurture me when I coud not get fish, to the village that show’d me how ‘n’ where to fish. In turn them fish feeds babies an’ the old who cannot fend for’em selves an that completes the circle”. Aerin then understood wholly the symmetry and simplicity of Goonbell and how and why it had survived in the mountains for hundreds of years and wondered that surely, in its origins, the city of Ilus had grown from such a simple barter system to become sullied with gold and tainted by the greed of modern men. She was heartened by the trust placed upon the Cesonius in the store and upon all those of the community to service it. It was such the antithesis of Ilus and its enhabitants forced devotion. Aerin vowed that it had been greed that had damaged the great city, those with power and money denying a voice to those with none and hoped with all her heart that Goonbell was never tempered by the manmade hammer of money.

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The Song of Orpheus

“With his songs, Orpheus, the bard of Thrace, allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks, to follow him.”

On the tenth morning Aerin climbed ever higher up into the mountain looking down upon the oyster-shaped valley.  The river ran deeper and colder burdened with water that froze her toes dropped from melted glaciers hung since the dawn of time in the bowels of the mountain’s higest reaches.  At midmorning Aerin found she could see smoke bellowing up from a small mound of grass. She climbed its crest to find a small chimney coming into view. What a sight!  After ten days of walking and seeing no one but a marmot she had rather given up on seeing another civilised being.  She found the chimney’s position to be remarkable in itself.  Clearly the mountain offered picturesque views, and the water was in constant supply, but the building of the chimney must have been some effort.  The rest of the building was obscured from Aerin’s view behind a rocky platform that jutted out high above the river’s edge. Aerin quickened her pace a little, impatient to see the hut spring into view, and what a picture! A small round hut emmerged from the rocky mound and satisfied Aerin’s curiosity completely. It had two shuttered windows, a plain wooden door and seemed to have been based upon the basin of a large cave.  Upon her arrival the door quickly opened thereafter where, now, a young man stood. He smiled as she approached, his browned skin from years in the sun rinkled a little about his cheeks. He was dressed in a short robe of hemp that fastened about his waste though he shook his hood off and held his hand out as salutation of her arrival.

“My a dhannvon dhis kara….well ay reckon, what ‘av we ‘ere? Ey traveller in these parts, blimey!”

The stranger’s face broke easily into a smile which brought a great light and gentleness to his hardened appearance. He possessed obvious strength and held himself tall in brown leather boots scuffed from many a year treading on rock and ridge. His robe contained various shades of brown from dirt and it was fashioned with a large dark belt on which sat a thick bladed knife that gleamed as though freshly sharpened. The two items, robe and knife seemed to contrast each other distinctly and therefore suggested much about the young man’s life. The knife, clean, sharp and ready was obviously important to him, intrinsic to his survival and everyday living in the valley, however his robe, Aerin thought, dirt ridden and well-worn suggested a clear disregard for his appearance and its wearing a mere practicality. Aerin thought to herself then that he may never have seen a city such as Ilus with all its glorious robes, as she had never, until this day, seen a dwelling so far removed from any others.  Aerin held out her hand, copying his gesture and removed her own hood. Their hands touched in a gentle but firm hold before he led Aerin with the same feeling of equal measure into his hut.

“Oy am Orpheus an this be moi home of sorts, you are mos’ welcome wearisome traveller, sit yorself downe an’ oi will fix you some supper, tis lookin’ loiks you needs it.”

Orpheus bundled Aerin into the hut and she took her place on a bed come bench whilst he busied himself with what he had proposed and Aerin could deciphre what it was Orpheus had actually said.

Aerin spoke to him as he began slicing fish. “ I am Aerin Paean of the once great city of Ilus, seven days south of here.”

Orpheus nodded and continued. The hut smelt strongly of smoked fish that hung from its rafters, a fire burned brightly in its fireplace. Above the hearth hung the man’s spear and nets drying in its heat. The hut was composed of a single room, containing two small raised wooden platforms that were used as bed and bench that ran either side of the door that matched the curvature of the walls. In the middle of the hut lay a small wooden table on which Orpheus now worked, his dog and all other possessions. Outside Orpheus collected water from the river and filled Aerin and himself a tanker. Orpheus spoke with an accent strange to Aerin’s ear, whilst occasionally using foreign words that she could not place the meaning.  Most of the young man’s speech however was discernable and had a melodious ring that soothed Aerin’s pounding head. Orpheus talked simply of his life fishing in the valley of Ordesa, of how he sung to the valley and enjoyed its echo.  He talked of his village two days walk along the mountain ridge and how he would be happy to guide Aerin thus far, but he spoke most upon how he occupied his days. Aerin greatfully eat the fish Orpheus had supplied and rested in a deep slumber not soon after eating the last mouthful.

It was not until the following morning just as the sun appeared that Aerin began to recount her tale to Orpheus as they stretched out his nets to catch fish for the journey.  His face saddened at the thought of the destruction of the great city, and agreed quickly to accompany her for the two day hike towards his village to warn his people and make sure of their safety.  After Aerin had explained (though she left out the bit about the Meliad) where she was heading, Orpheus confessed that he did not know of the lake Avernus towards which Aerin was heading and therefore that the only place the lake must be would be under the Y Mynydd Du (he gestured towards the largest blackest mountain further north) for this was the only place his tribe never travelled.  Aerin asked why, but all Orpheus did was shrug “too cold, be barren, too dang’rous, never been m’self ‘cos there’s no fish – we was always warned off it”.  On studying the black mountain, the threatening clouds above it, and comparing it to the natural furniture of the ground upon which they rested she could not think of a good reason why anyone would leave one for the other.

Aein felt that the hours of walking past easily with Orpheus; his company, steady measured footfall and even the regularity of his breathing calmed her and seemed to give her the strength to continue.  His excellent choice of foot placement along the muddy riverbank, over the stones high above the water and even cutting through the undergrowth meant that their journey was faster than Aerin’s previous days.   Often Orpheus spoke of that which lay about them, naming rocks and trees, on occasion asking for signs to find their way in safety such as when their route was blocked by fallen rocks, wild beast prints were spotted on route or the river too swollen to cross.  It was as if nature responded to him and that he belonged to it. Yet it was not just his gentle voice that seemed to tame the wilderness for often he did fill the valley with song in such a way that Aerin could feel her heart aching and rising in such a way that she almost choked as it rose in her chest along with the crescendo of his song.  The mountain seemed to fall silent as Orpheus sung, it was as if he entranced the whole of nature and no one would oppose it.

Orpheus frowned in absolute concentration however as Aerin described the ruined city by the Keres when they stopped for the night sheltered under a ridge where the wind and time had furrowed the stoney brow of the mountain. He furrowed his brow much to the shaping of the land and nodded intently as she described the winged beasts as the Miriads had.  He spoke after of unrest written in the skies and had seen distant “birdy beasts, large n’ twistin’ and turnin’ behind the mountain and travelling south” though he had concluded at the time that they were fighting vultures.  Aerin asked him worriedly had he seen a raven amongst the birds of the valley, but Orpheus shook his head.  He had seen no raven bird for it would be a true misfit amongst the eagles and the vultures of the high mountains. Orpheus pondered intently as Aerin explained the raven’s presence in Illus and her readings upon its meaning, he shook his head and believed he was greatful to not have seen the bird in the valley.  He laughed heartily again as Aerin spoke of the signum of the vulture in the sky explaining further that they did mean poverty and serious disruption. He stated, “I av’ seen twen’y or more them vultures above moi ‘ead every year of moi loif near nuff, oi thinks a lack of ‘em moight signify more dis-ruptin’ than not!” He had however noted the sky change colour to the south and a strange coil of soot gaining height many months ago that stayed put to the south before gliding across the valley floor. He added that it had stayed there for over a month hanging in the air as if of some magic, but had not been able to see or know its source for sure.  He feared that this must have been the burning of the great city, or some such matter and neither Orpheus nor Aerin slept well after that.

In the morning they rose early and continued walking towards Orpheus’ village almost wordlessly, their minds still troubled from the though of the Keres.  Both Aerin and Orpheus’ pace quickened at the thought of such a thing. Orpheus at this time begain to sing to comfort:

Hwerydh, breder kara

Kwerydh, breder kara,

Konin, hos an’ yar

Lowarn, dowrgi, lewpard

Kath, ki, logosenn,

Gwydh, karrek, ebryn.

Though ye may be a fearful

Of all ye do not know,

Ye can’t be sure ne anything

Less tha’ what ye know.

Hwerydh, breder o’ of old,

Guide us through be’t hot or cold.

Fear less the stir in river or tree

Edhen, lowarn or dowrgi.

Edhen, lowarn or dowrgi.

Be sure ye look towards the east,

Ay see tha’ rising sun.

Be sure ye look toward the west,

An’ wonder where it’s gone.

Be sure to love an’care for all tha’s green,

For food, for tylda for medsin an te.

Be sure to shake tha’ hand of e’re one you’s meet,

Be sure to give a chair less you’s ne’er need a seat.

For then we shall be happy an’ life shall be sweet,

Be sure to give a chair less you ne’er need a seat!

Hwerydh, breder kara

Kwerydh, breder kara,

Konin, hos an’ yar

Lowarn, dowrgi, lewpard

Kath, ki, logosenn,

Gwydh, karrek, ebryn.

Be sure to treasure every drop o’

Treasured dowr an’ our bara,

Less ye wander from tha’ river

An end up lack o’ dowr.

Hwerydh, breder kara

Kwerydh, breder kara,

Konin, hos an’ yar

Lowarn, dowrgi, lewpard

Kath, ki, logosenn,

Gwydh, karrek, ebryn.

my a dhannvon dhis kara

my a dhannvon dhis kara.

Aerin was not sure of all that Orpheus sung but the melody comforted her greatly.  Once more  his voice carried greatly and reverberated through the valley, seeming to break the river’s crashing rapids, call for the birds to sing and the very trees to whisper his name “oooorh-pheee-eeuuuss, oooorh-pheee-eeuuuss.” Orpheus seemed to be saying to the valley of Ordesa “this is my home, this is my world and I belong to it, I live for it.” As Orpheus sung Aerin and he strode to the same pace as his vocal pattern, matching its strength and rhyme as it was repeated.  And so it was not long before they reached Orpheus’ village high in Arcadia hidden by the black mountains of the north found only through the valley of Ordesa. It’s name, calved into a small stone entrance way was ‘Goonbell’.

ordesa

Into the Valley of Ordesa

On the second sunrise Aerin’s day began much like the first: the Meriad stretched out a pointy finger signalling north-ish within the tree from which she had appeared.  Aerin slumped forward, hefted her satchel onto her shoulder and stood in one swift motion.  She pertained to right her posture and breathed deeply in and out.  The wind had picked up and whistled eerily about the valley like a speedy hovering kettle ready to boil.  The sky was largely blue with a scattering of fast-moving clouds that were readily being brushed aside by the unerring breath of the gods.  her route was clear from the ruined tree for there was a vague track stretched forth from the tree, parting bouldered wilderness upon the baking desert land before her.  Even though the hour was early, the air felt close and dry.  The heat by mid-afternoon would be unbearable, she thought. There was little she could do but walk, so she picked her route via little clumps of tundra where Aerin sought the same drops of moisture the vegetation did.  

Aerin strode with purpose along the vague path, small pebbles moved beneath her worn boots and the path’s form became less distinct with the moving.  It had seemed so clear from the tree yet her eyes now had to comb the hazy wobbling horizon for distinct landmarks (of which there were few) and juxtaposition it with the steadfast valley edges and the blazing sun to keep her direction sure.  Her movement became more erratic as the landscape beckoned downwards further into the valley and the small stones which had moved beneath her feet had changed to large stones that did not move so easy.  Aerin found it necessary to leap from rock to rock, preferring the larger boulder terrain to the scree between them.  On occasion there was no option but to tread upon the scree and, upon doing, her foot did often slip, causing a large cloud of dust to plume that irritated her parched throat and clogging her lungs so that breathing became a dry rasping shudder. Yet leaping from rock to rock drained her energy quicker so that as the day drew long her trailing leg occasionally caught on rock to send her stumbling forward whilst her hands rushed out to meet the imminent rising rock in front of her.  Through this action her feet and hands became scraped and reddened so she bandaged them with worn cloth.  She stopped only a moment in the baking heat to bind her hands , soaked in a tincture of meadow saffron mixed with the tree’s honey and tumeric that would help with the healing.

When the sun was at its highest the heat was, as Aerin predicted, unbearable.  She continued walking though for a few hours more before finding a well within the landscape that had collected two large boulders, a small sprouting of grass and a twisting dry juniper that seemed to prise the two stones apart.  Aerin’s soul had been darkened through such recent tragedy and yet through each moment of her walking, though her steps grew tired and long, her heart was lifted. For through this journey she was given a purpose, perhaps it is a purpose that all humans long for:  to be important, to be intrinsic to the survival of others. Though at this particular time Aerin did not fully understand how great a purpose she had and perhaps it was for the best then that she was not consciously aware of how the whole world’s fate was intrinsically linked to her own.  And yet Aerin did get the feeling, which lightened her heavy heart so, that there was a ‘knowing’ at least that a purpose existed. She must reach Arcadia.  Her eyelids drooped but she refused to let them close.  So although a cloud of death and sadness hung above her head Aerin felt that her thoughts and overall mindset had never been clearer. The words of Hephaestus and the Miriad nymph of the great ash tree had collected, along with past dreams, books read, pictures sketched and ideas scribbled in margins together to form a new world picture no longer confined to fiction discovered only from dusty pages read within an old library, trapped inside four walls. Aerin picked up her pace and her heart skipped, for this she knew, was the start of an intrepid adventure.  Her body wearied as the sun pressed upon her skin but she fought to rise and walk for perhaps half dozen miles yet, long after the sun had set.  Stumbling in the blazing heat she  finally gave into the tiredness before it consumed her completely. She lay at nightfall beneath the cooling shade of a large boulder, where the large branches of an old olive tree turned grey and stripped of bark by wind and dust had spread its roots across the ground desperately searching in vain for a few dregs of water along the dry solid ground. Aerin sipped sparingly from her costrel and busied herself by watching for a moment the soaring movements of a wirey vulture circling overhead. After Aerin saw it shape vanish into the distance her eyelids dropped and her head tipped gently back against the rock behind her as sleep finally overcame her.

The next day her start was early for she felt it wiser to travel most before the sun had a chance to work its heat upon the land. She wrapped her cloak hood about her head after wetting it sparingly a little about its trim to cool her temple as she walked. She mounted the large boulder under which she had slept and lightly scaled the dead tree carefully to regain her bearings and witness once more the direction of the tiny dirt track as it progressed northwards towards the black mountains through Arcadia.   On this second day the boulders became larger and the path became smaller still as it battled to find its place amongst the rocks that littered its path. The way began to steepen again for a few hours before finally Aerin noticed small crops of grass and weed poked through the uneven crag. Their presence indicated water beneath her feet which pleased Aerin greatly, and as night fell upon her third day walking she noticed that she was now within the basin of a defined ‘L’ shaped valley that curved north east. As her muscles tightened aching from stress of bone on impact with stone and the sun was at its highest she once more slunk into the shade to cower from the light.  Aerin found her first bank of grass, where bindweed sprouted and amongst the plant small pink henna flowers nestled, and her weary bones seemed thankful for a softer cushion to rest upon.  Here she dared eat a little of her sparse food, crackers and some of the guard’s cheese she had preserved when found in the sotres of the prison.  Lying upon this little patch of green Aerin found her heart felt lighter still. The simplicity of finding green amongst miles of nowt but rock lifted her spirits and her aches and pains lessened quickly.   She allowed the green shoots to poke through the gaps between her toes and fingers, then to caress her skin as she gently stroked its surface.

The fourth and fifth days of walking arrived and went much the same as the the third and the landscape altered little.  The Meliad guided her to walk along the basin floor until there was none more, and the way steepened to force Aerin to seek higher ground.  Her eyelids closed upon the fifth day at this juncture, and Aerin awoke only once light dawned from the east of the sixth day.  Soon Aerin was picking her way back up the valley between more boulders and scree, mixed with  small clusters of pink and purple flowers poking up amongst the grasses. As Aerin journeyed upwards through the mountain wilderness she found the heat more bearable and the air a little wetter.  With this slight change of climate came a little wildlife. Firstly flies presented themselves, seemingly interested in the particles of sweat that formed within the lines of her brow before traveling down her nose and dripping into her eyes, irritating Aerin immensely. At around midday a large black velvet butterfly caressed her arm with its wings whilst she rested a little on a rocky shelf. Then as the sun began to set upon the close of the sixth day Aerin caught sight of a bushy tale, its owner scurrying amongst a small rocky outcrop between two stubby trees. As Aerin stepped towards it the tale moved out of sight, moments later it was replaced by two darting black eyes set apart by a mischievously twitching whiskered nose that stared and tracked her gently footsteps further up the valley. After a mile or so and in a flurry the marmot (for she was sure now that it was such an animal) departed. After a few hours walking more she felt its watching eyes again though saw nothing more. Finally as light became scarce the animal inquisitively ran towards her as she lay upon another grassy bank much wider than that of the night before.  It did not dare to fully greet her here but darted instead to another rocky outcrop to suss out this new visitor.  Within time though Aerin could clearly make out its brown furry form in its entirety. An animal that Aerin had found sketched beautifully many years ago in a book labelled “Interesting creatures of the valley of Ordesa” stood before her, its fear quite overcome by inquisitiveness. There was a certain charm to the marmot’s curling smile, twitching whiskers as well as its wary nature and Aerin was glad of its company. 

On the seventh morning the grass beneath her feet became sodden, moist with water that seeped between her toes and muddied her sandals. Aerin took great pleasure a few hours later bathing her aching weary feet in the first small puddle that she could find. Here a small sparrow scavenged for insects, he darted towards her bare feet with interest as she lay them in the pool. On the eighth day a small trickle of water was found beneath an overhang, cleansed by the clay rock the water was sweet and pure.  Finally on the ninth day in the valley a small stream appeared out of steep rock and fell upon the rock for a few yards before plunging underground and then rising once more to sculpt the rock to the east.  Here Aerin could finally drink deeply and quench her thirst. At the water’s edge she took time to fashion a fishing rod and tackle so that she could sit and fish an hour or so upstream. Aerin found a perfect spot where the path crossed the stream and began to climb, rising steeply. The water’s path reminded Aerin a little of the fishermen’s bridge in Ilus, and here she caught a small fish and cooked it lighting bracken upon a wee shelf that bent out from the bank of the stream. She eat quickly and moved on upstream for she had read about large wild bears that roamed in Arcadia, and she was fearful that the smell of cooked fish might attract other creatures more dangerous and larger than the timid marmot. She travelled on further towards the mountains where the stream became a steady waterfall and the midday sun shone gloriously through the glimmering fall. Aerin thought to herself that she would find great happiness living in the valley of Ordesa for Arcadia seemed so alive here.  Yet even as the thought formed in her mind she glanced further north to the black mountains now much closer than before. They cast a dark shadow that swept quickly across Arcadia as the warming sun set. They appeared more distinct, larger and clearer above which darkness had gathered now with such a thickness that a vulture that flew behind it disappeared from her view completely. Aerin sighed, and hoped that this seeemingly contented land would not change as the city of Ilus or Hephaestus’ village had. Indeed that no harm would befall the marmots, the bears or even the vultures circling overhead.

The Acacia Tree

“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity […] to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured.”

The blackened char made Aerin’s path soft to tread like walking on the back of barbequed silverfish, the ground giving way a little upon each step. She found the strong blazing aurora warmed the knitted fabric of her dark cloak and heeled aching bone so that the movement did not seem arduous. She made her way through where the city of Ilus once stood, picking out an occasional ruined building or sparkling metallic object lying in the wasteland that told a morsel of a story of that, that once was. Beside a half-standing wall she found a dropped dulled necklace, its owner long departed. As she wiped the earth the jewelry regained its shine and Aerin could then make out the markings of a little egret carved in silver. She pocketed the find safe in the knowledge that its owner was long gone. Further north the ground looked no different and Aerin picked her way through the scattering rubble remains of former buildings not knowing or caring to remember what had been there before. Eventually she met the burned remains of the great wall, areas of which still stood strong but some stones had come loose and toppled like crumbs from burnt toast. She did not stop to wonder at the wall but picked a route to climb from dropped stone and set about climbing to its top. It was an exercise she had long since dreamed of yet now, in the doing, it did not excite her. Some coarse stone roughed up her hands and legs’ bare skin till it broke, rubbed sore. She continued, up higher and higher till the purple veins in her scalp pulsated wildly and her breath became uneven. Her feet made light work of the climb for they remembered misspent youth climbing tree and brickwork in the city and soon her summit was reached and Aerin sat upon the top of the wall that now served no purpose to stare out at the world beyond.

Aerin looked out onto a sharp slope that briefly rose from the outer wall before turning downwards from a looming rock ledge. She could make out bare trees long since dead that rotted and poked up from the land like bare witches’ hands. The sky met the arid land low and grey cloud stalked the horizon. A whipping wind gently nudged at her back as though seeking to guide her limbs onward. Aerin pushed herself to turn on the wall-top and slid her boots down the rough stone surface seeking footrests in a nook or cranny. One foot find one, then the other and she levered her weight quick down the wall till her feet touched the floor. Turning on the spot she made her way up the short slope then picked up a mud path the cut down into the valley beyond leading the best-looking route over the rock ledge. As her pace became routine she hummed some melody from her childhood in an abstract manner as she picked between stone for her footing on the dry mud and shale track and strode out long-legged towards the north. She noted that even an hour’s walk or more from old Ilus the sky was quiet and she missed the chirping and swooping of bird or scratchy sound of small rodent in the low lying bracken. She was lost to the present and shoved her mind instead in thoughts of the grown ash and the Meliad’s words.

The break of day passed on into a dry afternoon and the sun gained height in the sky so’s Aerin knew. There was no shelter from it and Aerin could do little but continue walking whilst the air was at its warmest. The haggard ground rose and fell and Aerin ploughed on still further north. She leaned occasionally against smoothed grey bark and hankered for the tree’s naked sagged limbs to block out the sun’s unerring heat. Daylight fell away and the air became less close and dry as Aerin continued still further north. Soon wispy cloud replaced the horizon and Aerin could make out a few living trees and bushes where the valley sat its deepest. Her pace quickened a little so that she found the scattering of life where dry grasses, a few spiky bushes and a squat acacia thorn that had done well to battle and grow before night capped the valley in shadowy dark. Her knees weary did buckle and she unloaded her satchel as she sank to the ground. Pulling her weight she shrank beneath the thorn and lay underneath its branches for half hour till her breath slowed enough to allow for thinking. Her milk skin felt hot to touch still though a good breeze sought to cool it. After a while she lifted her upper body and twisted to let the tree prop up her torso. She stared up to the sky and saw instead the subtle smile of the Meliad that made her grab at the nothing in panic. The nymph dangled precariously from the thorn, half shadowed, half woman-like and pulled herself from the bark as she had done before. Swiftly she jumped down landing tacitly in front of shocked Aerin’s wide snappy green eyes.

“You made it then” announced the Meliad peering down upon Aerin’s weary form with little formality. “You made good time and came upon this Acacia as we had hoped, before the nyx did block the sun and cast the valley in darkness.” The nymph turned away and shrank again to shadow, disappearing it seemed into night itself before Aerin had chance to even part her parched lips to respond.

The Meliad

“..And with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.

Underneath the heavy ash bower Aerin slept peacefully, small white petals fluttered and fell as a light breeze befell the ruins of Ilus. The stained ashen earth cast black and red produced a greyish soot that the wind gently coaxed and lifted into small swirls before returning the ash to the floor. Aerin awoke in time as the sun rose once more upon the city’s barren remains. Her once beleaguered head throbbed with fresh memories of days crying. her skin was caked black, her throat was stone dry and her eyes stung from the soot that her sight was bleary. The green tree shook its branches and scattered further flowers to the ground. Aerin stood and looked. From the sole gnarled ledge upon the ashes otherwise splendid bark grew an unusual shadow that the sun seemed not to conjure. The cascading darkness grew with speed and fell rapidly to the dirt like a heavy wave of the early tide crashing upon the rocks. Aerin did not move. The shadow grew more solid by the passing second and soon took the form of a human-like being for it had two legs, two arms and a head – that much was sure. Aerin dared not be more than a spectator to its presence, and in turn the shadowy form seemed not troubled by her being there. Eventually the shadow pulled itself away from the tree with some effort and shook its ethereal body so that it became more substantial. The shadow were a shadow no longer and in its place stood an unusual creature that appeared part woman and part tree. Its skin mimicked the dark flesh of the ash and its hair was harder than a human’s as though cast from wood. She had curved nails that spiralled downwards like tumbling roots. The tree-woman and Aerin stared wondrously at each other before, finally, the tree-woman spoke.

“From the drops of blood that fell on the earth, mixed with your heavy tears sprang such a fair manna ash that we, the Melia, could not abjure for it is a thing of beauty, sprung from such destruction. What is your name, child of man?”

“Aerin of Paean, of the once-great city of Ilus” said Aerin pointing wildly at the empty ground about them.

“Indeed, Aerin of Paean. The city was great, but in its greatness it grew blind and forgetful of times past.” The Meliad pointed up towards the thick clouds of the north. “Warnings should not be ignored, nor true evil so quickly forgotten.”

Aerin nodded. “Forgive me, then, for asking – what caused this?”

The Meliad shuddered “speak of darkness long and Nyx will arrive for they feed on the fear of the living”.

There was silence then.

“Please” said Aerin, “just for a moment”.

“Very well” said the Meliad and she took a large intake of breath, “for the sun here is warming.” She stepped backward and sat down upon the earth with her back pressed against the ash and smiled as though doing so gave her the strength to speak. She beckoned for Aerin to do the same. Aerin did so obligingly.

“Ilus fell to hateful Keres, as you humans did call them some centuries ago. They are female death-spirits, dark beings with gnashing teeth and claws that thirst for blood and feed upon the fear of the living.” The Meliad’s face turned a little paler in the remembering”.

“I believe now that I read about them in the great library” Aerin said. Her brain quickly scavenged through the cavernous corridors of memories to recall words that fit the purpose. She pulled a filthy hand through her knotted gritty hair and remembered; “these men of valour, once bitter enemies, fell in their hundreds to the fierce Keres, nought were shielded from their fury. They were longing to drink blood and even the toughest of souls were not immune to fear.”

“Yes” said the Meliad, nodding, “then they have not been forgotten after all. I did wonder – for once their grim eyes and darkness have been witnessed they are not too easy to forget”. The Meliad looked up at the heavens and then sought strength to continue, “and it is a wonder that they are here at all, for they rarely have, in all time, journeyed this far south into Arcadia. They must have guidance.” She shivered though it was not cold. “Something must have woken them from their darkened slumber. This is something much thought upon by us nymphs and even the trees do whisper quietly upon it. As yet we are unsure”.

A grey whisper of a cloud passed above the ash tree that did not go unnoticed. “And yet we have spoken quite enough on darkness” said the Meliad, “we must strive to speak of light instead”.

Aerin simply nodded in again in agreement, though could think of little that was fair and light for in her mind she remembered further words she had read in the great books of Ilus ‘teeth as cruel as those of wild beast and fingernails bent like giant talons’.

The cloud above their heads grew darker.

The Meliad noted the darkening cloud and pressed lightly upon Aerin’s head. “Dark thoughts are kindled quickly. Did not you read also of Arcadia’s pleasant land; the rolling hills, the forests and all their splendour? Do you have no happy memories of old to bring warmth to your heart?”

Aerin, underneath the cloud of darkness sought to remember instead the fields of Ilus, her father’s garden and the vision of Arcadia that would twist her sad heart to good. The cloud quickly departed.

“Good” said the Meliad. “In the days coming you must preserve that which was good, and that which will be good will come again.”

Aerin thought the Meliad spoke a little in riddle and wished the nymph would elaborate more upon which she spoke, but the Meliad preferred silence – such is their way.

“There is a world beyond your own. I ask you to travel north into the mountains to visit lake you will find there. It is an entrance way.”

An entrance way to what? Aerin thought.

“To Avernus” said the Meriad, as though hearing Aerin’s thoughts. “I will not delude you. It is a route that is neither safe nor ever travelled by man before, yet it is a way that must be walked”. She turned to look within Aerin’s eyes and her smile was lost then, replaced with a wide-eyed stare.

“Why? Why must I walk this way and not south from the gathering clouds?” Aerin said firmly “what purpose does this serve; what fate?” said Aerin staring back into the nymph’s brown eyes.

“The trees know much but know nothing of fate nor purpose but have witness the comings and goings of time over many centuries. They speak of a time when such events happened as are happening now and, dare I say it, they are fearful themselves. And trees are not often fearful, even in their death, for they know life grows from death – such as with this very ash.”

Aerin thought the Meriad could speak clearer but bid the nymph continue anyhow.

“The trees fear a force that lived in Avernus at a time that I myself did not bear witness to. A force that if risen, as the Keres (this she whispered) have risen then they believe all will be lost and not even the mighty ash will rise from ash again.

The cloud returned above their heads thicker than before. The meriad waved a rooty arm and smiled in quiet happy reflection. “Peace clouds, you will not darken my heart – not today, for I know of sunshine, golden meadows, autumn’s amber leaves and deep green smell of pine, oak and ash”. The cloud quickly departed.

“And why do the trees require this of me?” questioned Aerin.

The Meliad’s hard eyebrows rose sharply. “You grew a mighty manna tree from your own tears and family’s blood and yet you query the path chosen for you? I do not understand the minds of humans.”

Aerin again nodded, it was true that the minds of humans were indeed confusing. Yet still she felt that the Meliad was not disclosing fully what lay before this destined path and yet she was, as she was invariably, intrigued. Aerin thought that her curious nature had been both her tool of survival and her tool of destruction. In her thinking she deduced that, seeing as she had little else to do in the world but shelter under the ash, would undertake the trees’ adventure.

Aerin nodded.

“And does this nod mean that you agree to take the path to Avernus?”

Aerin nodded again.

“You do not speak much, for a human, though you think, I think, greatly” (Aerin’s brow furrowed at his) “perhaps that is why the trees picked you”.

Aerin refrained from nodding a further time, and instead simply stated “continue”.

“The trees say to travel north into the mountains to reach the lake Avernus, a lake near Cumae, in ancient times was an entrance way” (though into what the Meliad refrained from saying). “Close by is a cave through which a tunnel descends. Easy is this descent to Avernus, for there is a door that which is always open. There are fumes here that rise and billow up into the skies from that which lies beneath and is therefore easy to find. Careful with your steps you must be for they are easy also to forget. Once that which rests at the lake is banished you must retrace your steps and escape back to the upper air. No easy task.”

The Meriad lay a hand and long spidery nails upon the manna’s bark in comfort to the tree.

“And what, pray, lies beneath the mountain?” Aerin thought once more that the Meriad seemed to be hazy in its description.

“A beast that must be kept silent” said the Meliad. And that was that. The nymph offered no further description and shrugged as Aerin probed for further clues. She harassed the nymph so that the Meliad grew weary but Aerin’s breath waned. It was useless, the nymph would give no more.

The Meliad closed her eyes and her form began to merge with the ash once more. “You must choose your path – so be it” she said as her form lost its solidity and returned to but a shadow.

Aerin nodded.

“Good. I will guide you as each tree is met.” Her feet departed into the ground, and Aerin witnessed the earth itself shift to give way to a hole just beneath the ash. The Meliad cupped and opened her shadowy hands before splitting her long fingers to allow a plentiful stream of fresh water (Aerin presumed to be that which was collected by the tree’s roots) to fall and collect within the newly made well. “Drink” said the Meliad. Aerin did as commanded until she had her full. Then she collected some more within her leather water-skin. When the skin was full she attached it to her cloak belt. The Meliad further commanded Aerin to collect honey from the ash and allowed for the collection by Aerin’s knife. “Your journey will be arduous, for that, the ash spares its flesh” the Meliad said, still with eyes closed. Then she disappeared further into the tree until but one arm remained in the open.

The Meliad pointed north-ish. “Your path” she said.

Aerin picked up her satchel noiselessly and gathered her cloak about her small and nimble frame. She picked up the path upon which she was directed and strode along it and wondered what lay await for her at the lake of Avernus.