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.


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’.


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.

Ash to Ash

Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade:
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He will take no wrong when he lieth along
‘Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

As the reddened sun began to set over to the west it cast Ilus’ blackened earth with heated rays allowing the soil to glow sanguine, tainted by the blood spilled by Aerin’s father, of her city and its people. Tears again mapped Aerin’s face until a puddle formed on the ground nestled in the ash. For several hours Aerin did stare at this puddle as it became larger through her sadness. Her cheeks still sallow, all the colour having been lost in them, shrank and grew with her soft wheezing breaths. Hunger eat her stomach and Aerin’s skin was so dried by the sun that it shriveled and hurt. Yet still Aerin did not move, nor her crying stop. The hours passed slowly and the puddle next to her feet grew and grew.

The light was hazy and Aerin became lost in time, not sure of any shape about her as objects seemed to shimmer, losing their silhouette. Within this apocalyptic land she wept and soon her mind began, or so she thought, to play tricks on her for the puddle moved. “You moved” she said, in its general direction. The puddle did not respond. After a moment, it grew again, much more rapidly than it had before over the long hours of the day. Aerin did not let its growth confuse her, and she stared at it wondering. You did move, she thought, or more specifically something within you moved. Aerin’s brow furrowed further as her attention was drawn towards the puddle’s centre. Small waves rippled from within the puddle and even within Aerin’s dehydrated state she swore again the puddle had moved. You are going mad Aerin! she thought to herself. At this moment Aerin seized her crying and instead gently reached out to touch the puddle of tears with her fingertips causing further ripples to appear. The liquid stretched outward to meet her fingertips, enlarging its surface area and consequently becoming shallower. Now through this shallow water a single green shoot poked forth struggling against the ash. It did not shock Aerin to see its form, thinking perhaps that it was her fragile mind collapsing upon itself. Instead, she lay down upon the dirt so that her chin pressed upon it and her eyes were at the shoot’s level not a foot from its stem.

Her worn satchel lay upon the ground and her heavy breath warmed the small shoot. It grew greener. She stared at the shoot with great intrigue. How had this little green shoot come to be when all else had perished? A single tear this time much larger than those before crept again down her face as her memory stretched back to when she and her father knelt in their garden tending shoots much like the one before her. Quizzically she studied its growth and before long noticed that the small shoot had grown roots and now the plant stood above her head. Aerin sought to kneel upon the ground, pulling back so that her eyes matched its new found height. Her eyes were wide with shock, so speedy to leave the earth was the little plant.

The tear pool soaked the small tree that had emerged and through its developing leaf she could tell its name and said it clear as day “ash” she said. The watery solution about the tree turned a scarlet red much like the sun, absorbing the blood of many who had died but seemed to give renewed vigor to the insatiable plant. Love for her father and memories of their home in the once great city swept over Aerin and cleansed the anger that had raged in her heart once formed as she slept in the dungeons of the tower. She thought to herself, if her father were alive at this very minute he would water and care for this lonesome shoot with all his heart until it had grown into whatever it was destined to be. Aerin watched as her bloody tears were absorbed by the shoot, or at least the ash about it and then Aerin felt that something remarkable and indeed mighty strange had occurred. Aerin had the distinct impression that the tree would be fully grown in but a few hours. She stared at the little thing and cocked her head to one side, indeed she was sure it had grown four inches in just the last few minutes, and more bizarrely appeared to be continuing to grow. Aerin shuffled backwards slightly, then stood and waited. The tree seemingly unaware that it was being watched, grew quickly and after an hour or so the small tree was small no longer.

Aerin’s tears had stopped but the tree kept on growing and she was forced to spring backwards as roots began to shake the ground on which she stood. Aerin laughed in amazement, in sheer bewilderment at the large ash tree which now stood majestically in front of her. How had this life sprung from the barren dust? She remembered then a phrase she had read and scampered to her satchel to retrieve a book she had rescued from the library marked ‘Arcadia’. She found the section that the growing manna ash had caused her to think of:

Meliads- ash tree (melia) and were sprung from the drops of blood that fell on the earth upon its making.

The roots of the ash uncurled and lashed out and down into the dust. The tree began to give off a green smell that soon cloaked the foul stench of death and decay. The tree’s bark stayed smooth though a single canker formed a ledge as the full form of the tree took hold. Soon further broad leaves sprouted forth in opposites with delicate flowers, each with four white slender petals, growing amongst them. The tree grew up further feet and causing small samara to drift down from the sky like green wings floating to earth. Further branches sprung out and Aerin smelt the air as a wonderous aroma of sweet sap was emitted in the process, such a wonderful tree! She thought. Within this tree grew life itself, yet also enough life to lift Aerin’s soul from within the slumber it had slept. Aerin, when finally it seemed all the growing had been done by the ash, took a small pocket knife from her satchel and cut a small section of the bark, peeling back its ripe interior. She sucked at the sap and was grateful for its sugar. Then, once more, she lay down upon the ground, this time seeking shelter beneath the ash’s domed bower whilst Aerin’s worries washed away.

Wail of the Banshee

The Banshee mournful wails
In the midst of the silent, lonely, lonely night,
Plaining, she sings the song of death.

Aerin held out her hand for the cripple and he took it willingly. His hand was bone dry and she could feel the carved lines upon it as she held it close to hers. Flesh pressed against flesh feels sometimes as though life itself is exchanged in the moment, she thought. Black thoughts were eased in both their troubled minds and Hephaestus lifted his head a little higher from that moment on. Aerin noted that his bare feet scuffed the dusty floor as he walked and she pointed out the box of the cripple’s possessions not far from the open door; “your things” she said. He seems to ponder for a moment then walked out of his cell, looking first left – then right cautiously as though preparing to cross a busy street. Aerin grabbed Hephaestus’ staff that had been propped up outside in the corridor and offered it to the cripple. He took it obligingly and stroked its wooden form as though an old friend. “Their are no guards ahead, as far as I can tell we are alone” Aerin said, though the true magnitude of this fact she did little comprehend at this juncture.

“We must be careful” muttered Hephaestus as he reached down into the wooden crate to obtain the remains of his possessions, he had arrived with little. Aerin’s nose wrinkled with displeasure as the cripple’s strong stale redolence filled her nostrils and wondered that she must smell the same to him. How long had they been locked away? She raised an arm and sniffed to decipher her own reek. “Ha” said the cripple, “then you smell us too”. Aerin nodded, and they agreed that once they had found water to quench their thirst they must also bathe in it.

And so the unlikely duo began to walk down the passage way, taking the left of two turns at a fork at the end of the tunnel as the ground seemed to slope upwards at this point. Here they found a cupboard, table and chairs wedged in one corner. In the cupboard was some stale bread and cheese which Aerin and Hephaestus eat greedily, along with a bottle of cider, presumably left for the guard which they polished off swiftly. It was not water but it would have to do. Their heads felt giddy after and they took a moment to collect their thoughts sat upon the empty chairs. Still no guard. Having had their full they ventured on, eventually coming to another door that blocked their path completely. Hephaestus nodded at the door with his staff “do your stuff then”. Aerin hesitated momentarily then shrugged and walked towards the door. She ran her hands around its edges before proclaiming the sentence, this time she only managed three repeats before the door sprung open. ‘Blimey’ said Hephaestus before walking through the door frame where once the door had stood. The ground beneath their feet continued to rise until they came to a rickety wooden staircase that lead upwards again. Aerin noted that it was not unlike the one she had climbed many times earlier into the library. They slowly made their way up the staircase that seemed interminably long for their wearied and stumbling legs. It began to spiral upwards and the dingy light became clearer and more natural upon their eyes. Eventually Aerin could peer over the bannister of the stairs and not even see from where they had started their ascent. They did however find the top and the staircase ended in a small room.

Aerin and Hephaestus could see only one exit, a solitary trap-door and a ladder leading up to it. This door however did budge without any magic, just one hard push and they were both awash with light that burnt their sensitive eyes and air that refreshed their lungs with one swift breath. Freedom! Aerin thought. They hurried to cover their eyes from the damning sun and could do nothing but lie a moment upon the ground, cowering from its glow. They clambered out of the trapdoor and arrived at the steps of the library – accept that the library was no longer there.

Aerin’s hands were shaking as she stepped out into the sunlight. The cripple turned to her and said “how did you do it? How did you open them doors?” Aerin shook her head, distracted, and replied “I’ve no idea.” Then the unlikely pair looked about them at the city, or more precisely where the city once was,  for now there was no city.   All around them lay a blank canvas, like the world had simply swallowed up its former contents, thought Aerin, except for my memory of it.  A thick black dust lay on the ground and even the sunlight itself seemed muffled by it.  Even so the two prisoners squinted, their eyes still unable to adjust to the light  They slumped to the ground and rested upon each others’ back wondering at their surroundings, dumbfounded by its bleakness.  What had happened here?  Aerin could not think of her father.  Shock kept them there until the sun began to fade and darkness came to drain the last remaining colour from the day.  There was only rubble remaining, the city that Aerin had loved so dearly was no more, burnt to the ground along with, she presumed her people.  She could do nothing to stop her mind becoming blotted with memories of faces, moments and places full of life, sounds and her heart raced pounding in her chest.  She could smell fresh-baked bread being sold in the market and hear the bell toll from the tower; she could see the yellow-gold crops waving in the wind so vividly that she reached out her hands in front of her to let them hit her hands.  But there was none.  Aerin was glad she was not alone.  Hephaestus had been content in her silence and had not sought to move nor comfort Aerin for he knew the pain she felt, for he had felt the same and he knew that no words could dull an aching heart.

Day turned to night and Aerin listened to the constant inhale, exhale of their shallow breaths.  The rhythm seemed to sooth her mind and kept her from slipping away into the void.  They both continued to sit upon the ground and silently felt their strength and hope, that had been so quickly gained from escaping their cells,  quickly taken from them.  They could do nothing but plot unknown paths through the black dust underneath them traced with their fingertips.  As the final strands of light ebbed away the dust cooled to touch as did their very souls.  Hepahestus and Aerin slipped into a form of sleep and lay against each other until the first signs of morning woke them.  The sky was a feeble grey and a single white cloud seemed like a chalky slash upon it.  Hephaestus sighed and laid a hand upon Aerin’s shoulder.  After a moment he stood “needs must” he said before begrudgingly standing.  Aerin watched him rise and he walked over to the steps of the old library.  He wiped a small area clean of the black soot and sat again this time facing Aerin.  He studied her face quizzically and nodded, “yes” he said, “it is time”.

Aerin did not understand fully the meaning of his words but felt an overwhelming sadness take hold.  Perhaps this was what they had been waiting for.  Hephaestus wiped his brow with the back of his hand, marking his skin black.  A sound departed from Aerin’s lips like the wail of a banshee, she could not stop it nor control it; a sound of utter despair and anger, anger at the world, anger at herself.  Her body ached and she could do nothing but cling to the dust-covered library steps and mourn.  Tears once more formed collected in her eye ducts and flowed down her sallow cheeks, cleaning spider’s paths upon her cheeks amongst the dusting of black soot upon them.  Many fell upon the earth until there were none left.  Her voice became hoarse and her lungs could scream no longer so Ilus fell silent once more.

Eventually Hephaestus spoke, “I brought warning to the city of such a day but never in my mind did I foresee such tragedy. Not one building nor soul remains ‘cept us! What evil” he muttered and trailed off “what evil”.  He was again lost to his thoughts.

Aerin struggled to breath and fought with her cloak’s tie to release it from her neck.  Her fingers grasped at the string until it finally became loose and she threw it to one side.  Her nose ran and she wiped at it with a dirt-covered hand.  She could not speak any words for the force of which had departed her but her mouth moved in the form of a prayer she had once heard her father say, many moons ago.  She scrambled on the ground for in her pain her mind had forgotten how to move her body to walk.

“What evil has come to this once fair city to do such a thing? We must leave this place Aerin Paean, we must go South and hope this evil has not spread further” Hephaestus proclaimed “for how long were we sleeping? How long did we rot in those cells?… I do remember only dreams,. such vivid dreams…nightmares of such pain, but none did depict this!”

Aerin bowed her head to the earth.

“Yes, Aerin we must leave this place.”

Aerin shook her head. She could not leave this place, her place, her home. Not yet.

“There are others that will feel your pain Aerin, we must seek to warn…whatever the cost. I…I came hear to warn – and I did warn you and you were saved were you not? Is that not my purpose now?” Hephaestus scratched at his beard.

Aerin gathered her remaining strength and sought to find the air to breath once more. “I cannot leave my city” she rasped “nor what this ground now is. This is my home, this is where my father is…was. I do not know. I cannot understand. Not yet” she said, “not yet”.

“I am torn to leave you Aerin” but I cannot rest. Hephaestus stood from his the step, and aided by his staff he walked towards Aerin to place one hand upon her should once more. “Mourn for your city, for your father – but remember this pain for it will guide you. Remember all you have read about – those lands that lies beyond where once those walls stood! I must leave now and continue my journey, and warn others if I can. I will recite the tale of this city and hope that others can be saved”.

Aerin found comfort in his voice and wished she could find the strength to move, but could not. Her soul was rigid. Hephaestus marked upon the darkened earth with his staff a circle between them. “Here we are” he said looking at Aerin’s eyes for comprehension, she nodded.

“If you find the strength to travel beyond here you will find me on the road that runs from Arcadia” he marked a spot south of the circle, near his own feet, “and all the way to the northern lands” he drew a curving line north from his feet, hitting the circle then bearing south once more, until at Aerin’s own. From the circle, the line bent west then south, then more easterly. Hephaestus traced the route again but this time stopped at a point and marked a crossing road. “Here, at a bridge that crosses into the forest of Ellough of the South you may find me. You will find a tavern called The Bandit’s Bower” (he marked again upon his makeshift map) “and here I will often seek rest and take food and drink. If you wait but a few days here I will find you or else mention my name and leave note with the landlord of where you go.”

Aerin nodded her head with tiredness beyond her years and the cripple headed off southwards through the deserted remains of the city, following the blackened river towards the road. As the cripple left the sun crept up behind him, lighting his path southwards. Aerin looked towards the north where a dangerous and threatening cloud seemed still permanently fixed. Whatever evil had come to the city Aerin felt sure had been born in the north.