Chapter 20: BELTANE
The village swam with a sea of relaxed faces. The children’s smiles emerged from colourfully painted cats, flowers, and foxes, each face brightly decorated with plant-dyed clay. The women and children enjoyed the last of the celebrations as the remnants of the setting sun sparkled through the trees and a ghostly mantle of early evening mist began to creep in along the ground, spilling in from the rapidly darkening forest.
Ferrish fiddle music, softly muffled by the damp air, played merrily in accompaniment to a group of young girls dancing barefoot around the great elder tree. Their hands clasped sprays of brightly coloured rushes as they bobbed and gyrated, eking out one final moment of joyous abandon before the festival ended, as prematurely as it had begun. Old women, distant, wistful expressions resting uncomfortably on their weathered faces, began clearing the remnants of their simple feast. Bread, nuts, dried and honeyed fruits, liquorice root, berry wines and cheeses were whisked from the tables outside each of the dwellings and stowed away, ready for their impending journey. Their sweet aromas lingered in the air like the scent of spun sugar from a summer fayre.
Vega’s woman, Lyra, sat on the steps of their wagon with their children, watching the dancing. Lily, her face a mask of painted flowers, and Tau - bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pharmacon loris - rested their heads on their mother and fought to keep their heavy-lidded eyes open. Vega watched them from inside the wagon as he stowed the last of the supplies, his poignant, pensive smile fading as he looked out over the edge of the clearing. Two figures, seemingly oblivious to the festivities, looked away, their eyes cast up towards the southern sky.
Rose and Ash paced nervously along the edge of the clearing meticulously examining the skyline. Rose, feeling Vega’s eyes upon her, turned and glanced back. She saw Vega’s faint smile vanish as he caught sight of her expression. He reads me as effortlessly as he does the leaves in a cup. Feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, she turned back towards Ash.
“We need to go,” she folded her arms in frustration, “why is it taking them so long… This dallying is madness!”
“Relax Rose,” Ash’s relaxed smile belied the unease in his eyes. “This may be the last time they get to let their hair down for a while, and a few more minutes are unlikely to make much difference. Going ahead with the festival was a good idea, just look over there.”
He jerked his head towards a group of children happily chuckling as they joined the dancers, skipping around the tree; their stubby feet, bare and blackened by the dusty ground.
Rose smiled despite her anxiety, but the smile was fleeting, vanishing as her eyes fell on a small Twocast girl. The girl’s mass of red hair bounced on her shoulders as she skipped merrily around the tree with the others. Instantly, Rose recalled the scene that they had witnessed in the Sooth only days before. The image of that red-haired child, burning to death in the fyre of the Afreet had been seared into her mind forever. It returned to her again and again, stealing each brief moment of joy and haunting her dreams. Rose blinked, swallowing hard, as she felt the briny heat pool in her eyes.
“Rose?” Ash’s eyes narrowed in concern.
The last thing Rose wanted was for Ash to be kind to her. That would be too much. I have cried enough.
She looked past him, her face stoically expressionless as she watched two figures approaching from the centre of the village. She stepped out, striding doggedly towards them as she called back over her shoulder.
“I’m fine, but it’s time we left, I have no intention of watching any more children burn.”
Ash fell in behind her, he made no comment, seeming to sense her mood.
Ro-eh-na and Commander Linden were engaged in a heated argument. Linden, newly equipped with a Twocast bow and quiver full of arrows, wore a face like thunder. By the time Rose and Ash reached the pair of them their angry exchanges had ceased, though their clenched jaws and scowling eyes told the same story.
“Do we have a problem?” Rose lifted her brows, looking to each of them in turn for an answer.
An awkward silence followed, then both attempted to speak at once. The anger and frustration in their words being the only thing that Rose could discern from the resulting din.
“Hold on,” Rose was irritated. How can they argue at a time like this? “I did not get a word of that. Ro-eh-na, you speak.” Rose held up a hand as Linden tried to interject. “You’ll have your say in a moment… Ro-eh-na?”
“He says that I cannot go with you,” said Ro-eh-na, her voice quick and tight. “He says that I will slow you down, that I’ll be a liability and that I should go with Elder to Isingwilde.”
“Well, look at her… she can hardly walk,” Linden’s exasperation was evident. “If we are to make good time to Ogin’s Deep, then she will have to travel in the wagon with the children and the wagon is not accompanying us to Kelpievale, so how can she possibly come with us?”
Rose glanced from Linden’s glowering face to Ro-eh-na’s fractured expression of exasperation and then to Ash. His look of barely disguised amusement infected her immediately causing her to chuckle and then to laugh. Soon the three of them were laughing uncontrollably. Linden’s frustration turned to bewilderment.
“Ro-eh-na, did you not explain…” Rose giggled, desperately attempting to regain her composure.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Ash with a wink in Ro-eh-na’s direction.
Ro-eh-na nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders. Then her mouth lifted in a wry, slanted smile as she mumbled an incantation.
“Transmutes niue pardus.”
Her potens ring flashed. Its pulsating light expanded around her, enveloping her in a luminous mist. The glistening haze transformed into the shape of a large white leopard, bounding forward, its incandescent glow trailing behind, like the tail of a comet, before vanishing to reveal the full magnificence of the great animal. Thick, sleek white fur covered its body and framed two piercing black eyes, peering out from the face of the Rhodium snow leopard.
Slowly, the creature circled the three of them before turning its attention to Linden. Fangs bared, a low ominous growl escaped its gaping jaws. Linden’s eyes widened, his hand reached automatically for the hilt of his sword. Then, cursing to himself, he re-sheathed it, lifting his palms in mock surrender as he stepped backwards away from the approaching feline.
“Okay… okay…,” said Ash with a grin “Ro-eh-na, you’ve made your point, no need to underline it with blood.”
“And, enjoyable as this is,” said Rose, “we do need to get going.”
“I came to tell you that everything is ready,” Linden regarded the pacing leopard warily as he spoke to Rose. “Essential belongings and food have been packed, and the wagon is loaded. All that remains is to get the children on board before we leave.”
The fiddle music finally ceased, and the air quietened, but for a muted chorus of disappointed cries from a few weary children.
“Great,” Rose gave a small sigh of relief. The delay, with the sense of urgency that she was feeling had generated a growing knot of anxiety inside her. She felt as if she had been holding her breath for days. “Let’s go then. We need to reach the cover of the Winter Forest before daybreak, and that’s not going to be easy with so many of them not even owning a pair of shoes.”
Rose remembered her feelings of pity when they had first entered the village. The villagers followed Vega’s wagon, their feet were mostly bare or wrapped in rabbit skins tied on with hemp twine. She had felt ashamed then, she had wanted to make things right. Is that what I am doing, making things right? How can they be expected to survive in the north without even the most basic equipment? I could be sending them to their deaths, but if they stay here...
The clatter of hoofs and the gentle rumble of cartwheels pulled her out of her reverie. Vega’s wagon approached, straining under the weight of its cargo, the children, the old and the infirm. Vastly overladen, it rocked, lurching dangerously on the uneven ground.
Behind the wagon, a line of Twocasts walked three or four abreast. Each of them carried all their worldly possessions, stuffed into sacks and tied to their backs with leather straps or hemp twine that cut deep into their shoulders as they walked.
They appeared to have dressed as well as they could for the icy weather ahead of them, their feet wrapped in roughly sewn rabbit skin boots and their bodies cloaked in bizarre, shapeless fur cloaks, fashioned from a diverse collection of animal skins.
Behind them came the High Councillors and the other Muds from Glynisfarne. Officer Blackthorn accompanied El-on-ah’s two spies, Che & Tu-nek-ta. Under the effects of Oblitus potion, their cheery, gormless smiles were in bizarre contrast to their vacant, glassy stares.
Auriel, Lee, and the Elder Witch followed at the rear of the convoy. Elder wore a thick, grey woollen cloak. Rose noticed the increasing frequency with which she was using her staff to steady her tall, gaunt frame as she walked. Her feet were bare.
As the cart rattled towards them, Vega lifted his weatherworn hat in greeting, snapping the reins and driving the horses on. He chuckled as Rose and Ash jumped backwards, the wheels having pitched violently sideways, almost mowing them down.
“Aye,” he said, twisting around as he passed, “you’d be wise t’ remember rule number twenty-seven… never get in the way of a fully laden cart.”
Rose shook her head, sharing a smile of exasperation with Ash.
“I’m not sure which is the scariest,” Ash’s lips twitched, “the Afreet with their fyre spears, or Vega with his wagon.”
After the bedraggled procession had passed, Rose’s group fell into line at the back. Auriel handed her a small sack packed with provisions, Lee tossed a similar one to Ash.
Auriel’s eyes widened as she glanced towards the snow leopard padding softly at Rose’s side.
“Ro-eh-na,” said Rose, “she could come in quite useful in that form, don’t you think?”
Sloley, seemingly unimpressed by the addition of the large white cat to their group, let out series of frantic shrieks and screeches before diving into the hood of Lee’s cloak and burying himself deep inside the soft material.
Rose felt her anxiety ease a little as they made their way out of the forest. Now that they were on their way, she felt oddly content with her friends walking purposefully at her side.
Ahead of them, Vega’s cart bobbed along rhythmically, trailed by its ragtag procession of individuals.
The evening mist billowed in around their feet, swirling above the wagon’s wheels until it appeared to float like a tiny vessel, adrift on a vast, alabaster sea.
To Rose, the chilly, moist night air smelled fresh, like a new beginning. Tonight they were leaving behind the dark, musty dwellings, the choking wood smoke, and the putrid stench of the stink holes. She smiled; at least, no one will ever have to visit them again.
As they finally left the cover of the forest, soft echoes of children’s voices drifted up on the night breeze.
’Hush little bairn, keep thee silent,
It’s nay the time for your lament,
Thy Ma she’s tired and thy Pa he’s worn,
So keep thee a sleepin’ ‘til the morn...’
Soon, the only sounds in the night air were the hollow clatter of the wagon’s wheels, the faint sporadic hum of muffled voices and the gentle padding of tired, wet feet over the cold, damp ground. The night sky, growing blacker with every second, showed little sign of what was to come.