Chapter 1: The Black Signal
Reaching out, he twirled his hand through the air, letting the warmth soak into his scarred and dirt-blackened flesh. Magic was thick in the air tonight. Around him the rain pattered, the mud sloshed down in thick streams over rocks and pebbles, crows cawed from the cloudy air, and the creatures of the forest stepped lightly over the moss strewn undergrowth beneath the dark canopy of trees, avoiding the ill omen that was the fire of man. But Knox was safe from the elements, hidden beneath a fallen tree, covered with vines and leaves to keep him dry.
Knox bit into the flesh of the hare, spitting out another morsel of grizzle for Tapa--his companionable wolf laying beside him. The old girl loved these moments, just the two of them soaking up the precious heat from the small fire. Some years ago Knox had found the lone pup near death and had taken it onto himself to nurse and feed it using a pregnant wolf-bitch’s milk, and over time the wolf had grown strong and healthy.
‘Don’t get used to it, mo cailin’ my love. Knox rubbed her furry head, trying once again to undo some of the shaggy knots on her thick skull. Tapa eyed him for a moment, then his near-devoured hare--but seeing as Knox wasn’t parting with the bones just yet, she lay back down and eyed the flames silently, brooding as was her way.
‘I hear you, I don’t want to go either, but we were called, and we’d best not ignore the Black Signal.’ Knox bit hungrily into the meat. It’d been two days since he’d managed in snaring a hare, times were hard, but this was taking the piss. It was OK for Tapa, she could hunt like the Gods themselves. Two days ago the thin trail of black smoke rose from Capard Hornbeard’s mountain, the Black Signal, as many of the Timber Wolf clan called it.
Juices ran down his chin and over his fingers, making Tapa lick her lips at the scent of it. ‘Odd, the Black Signal lit before the Cold Days are here.’ Tapa’s ear perked sideways, but then turned back to the surrounding trees. ‘Not good omens for sure.’
Tapa simply lay her head on her paws and took the food for a hopeless cause. He threw the carcass to her then, and Tapa bit hungrily into the bones, matching the crackling flames and cracking of stick with the splitting of bone. He eyed the wolf, who was putting on a bit too much weight. Lucky for her the snares made no difference, that wolf could find a hare if she were struck blind and deaf. Her wolf blood made that she were lean most time, but the idleness of the recent times made that she had feasted in Capard Hornbeard’s Hall during the Warm Days too much for her own good. Knox patted his own lean stomach beneath his thick cloak and supposed that a warm hall and the hope of unearned meat weren’t too much to complain about. The gods knew that the warmth of some girl in a straw pallet wouldn’t be frowned upon.
Knox took out his dagger and began cleaning his nails from dirt and grease.
It’d been three moons since he’d seen the Black Signal wafting up over the trees, calling Capard Hornbeard’s men home. Any folk from the Slieve Bloom Mountains had to fight for the old man; some of the Valley Folk too answered the signal, but not many these days. Since the arrival of the Bronze Men from the south more people had taken to sheltering along the seas, in their high cliff forts and high stone walls. Knox had seen the sea once, and that amount of water made a man unsteady. His feet were mountain feet, better suited for rolling hills of forest. He’d never trusted the Bronze Men, with their dark faces and darker minds. No, he’d rather keep to himself up here, pilfering and scavenging what he could from the timber-wolves and the foxes. The mountain folk were a nomadic people, men who preferred solitude to northerners’ small huts in their villages and queer ways, but the Bloom folk banded together when danger raised its head over their homeland hills.
Tapa finished the last of the bones and looked at Knox for more. Being greedy at a feed was her way, as was the way of all her kind. He gave her head a tussle and stuck his dagger into his belt, finished cleaning his nails. Taking out his pipe, he stuck a pellet of the measly stock of Blue-Weed that he had left. Taking an ember from the fire, he stuck the burning mound into the pipe and toked down on it, turning the pale blue-green moss aglow. Blowing out the pungent smoke and lying back on his bed of wreathes and dry grass, Knox thought about what the next few days would have in store.
Capard Hornbeard by now would be setting all of his hearths alight, getting his hall ready for the folk to take council. The casks would be rolled out from the under-vaults, benches aligned and banners hung. ‘In old times,’ Hornbeard would say, in his drunken and merry voice, ‘we had two handfuls of strong banner clans. We fought the western Tuccock clans back from our hills, when they came with flame and fury.’ Old Capard Hornbeard was a relic of the lands, more suited to when the stories of the Old Times were still remembered vividly by old warriors. But the ancient ruins that scattered the land had fallen to rubble and grass, and tales of past Gods living among men were nigh but dead. Knox had to bite his lip at that, as a boy in the hall he’d been fond of listening to the old warriors' tales of fables old and strange.
‘Tapa, did I ever tell you about the Ring of Mountains?’
The wolf looked at him sideways, giving him her Not again, please look, as was her way.
‘Ten Warrior Lords drew as one, my girl, a strong circle of clans that banded together when the Dark Ones came. The Dark Ones chased the Highlanders down from the north, spreading out their strength into weak bands, burning all what they could in their way. None could stop them. The Dark Ones were but shadows, no foot shown in mud, no wisp of mist that gathered when they neared was disturbed when they struck. Each Warrior Lord had their own reasons to band together, each man strong but greedy. Each knew that they wouldn’t last an attack alone. They would have fallen too, if the White Lady hadn’t rose from the Silver Lake. She rose from the mist, roaming the lands as the Dark Ones neared her people. The land the White Lady walked was found burned when the people followed, and screams came through the night, from where nobody knew. No man alive saw the creatures which screamed, but the Dark Ones passed from the land and the White Lady stepped back into her watery realm. And since then the Dark Ones are afraid to come back. It’s why old Capard Hornbeard hangs a white woman on his banner. He’s the last of a line, girl, the last dying embers of the Old Magic.’
Tapa’s eyes had long closed, but Knox spoke for more his own comfort, as was his way. He took one final pull from the pipe and emptied the embers out into the sloshing mud beside him. Staring into the flames, Knox imagined the old tales, of White Lady’s and men who did not fear the Dark Ones. Of tribes living in the company of thKnox dreamed of living in the old tales, but there weren’t any tales any more, only mountains and strife, and hunger, and tribute. Knox’s eyes closed, and he let them. Sleep would bring the morning all the sooner.
And tomorrow, who knew what tales he would know.