Knox of the Bloom

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Chapter 4: Gathering of the Bloom

Morning mist crept up the murky hills of the Slieve Bloom. The wind swept in from the east, carrying with it the baying of timber-wolves as the Moon dipped its head below the peak. Light slowly came and chased away the shadows surrounding Hornbeard’s camp, and only a handful of red-eyed warriors could be seen from above the palisade walls. The Hall was mostly dark, with grumbling snores escaping from its squat windows. Down a side path, where not many strayed, footprints were slowly covered with falling leaves. A waterfall spluttered and splattered its stream down and along the rock pool. Near the edge, huddled beneath his thick cloak, a young man dreamt of far-away lands and adventures. Beside him, wiggling her way in closer for warmth was a large wolf. The scene was peaceful, and only when the sky began to break with dawn did the thing that watched the man skulk away into the trees, leaving not a footmark in the soil behind it. It didn’t stir the mist, just seemed to shrink away into the undergrowth and vanish into the darkness of the forest.

* * *

Knox yawned and stretched, then quickly pulled his legs back in as his feet slid over dewy grass blades. He peeked out from under his cloak, a thick stag’s hide that kept him warm and dry beneath it. The trees were dark green below, but the rising sun turned the tips to bright green. He blinked and wiped the sleep from his eyes.

‘C’mon Tapa, we’d best get to the Hall before they eat all the food.’ Knox slid his feet into his boots, tied the straps made from gut, and shook off the beads of dew from his cloak. At the mention of food, Tapa uncurled herself from the ball she’d been rolled into and stretched out her thick legs. She turned and licked Knox into the side of his face. ‘I’m hungry too Tap. C’mon, damn ground’s hard as rocks.’ As they climbed the steep wall of rock to regain the path for the camp, Tapa stopped and sniffed the air. Knox froze. ‘What is it girl?’

Tapa’s ears perked up, and she sniffed again. She began growling, very faintly.

‘What is it Tap?’ He followed her into the undergrowth, where Tapa sniffed at the ground. Her tail wagged, and her growl grew deeper. ‘There’s nothing here girl. No tracks.’ But the dog’s eyes were wide with excitement. ‘C’mon,’ said Knox, pulling the cloak tighter around him. He couldn’t help but notice the dog’s hair standing on end. As they travelled the trail, Knox kept thinking he heard footsteps. He’d always been at peace living in the woods, even in the dark woods far to the west, where no other mountain folk would spend a night. But something wasn’t right. The air, it seemed... different.

Knox said a prayer to the God of Life and Luck when the palisade wall came into view. He gave the warriors a wave and a nod as they pulled wide the gate for him. Some more folk had shown up during the night. A group of Faes from some distant valley were piled up in a corner, with their small carts pulled by those strange mules with trinkets tied to their manes. The Faes liked to travel in large groups for safety, and gave entertainment and healing for their board and feed.

Two groups of warriors had made camp also, and he recognized one of them. The Red-Pine clan were close-knit and valued allies of Hornbeard’s. But the other group he’d never set eyes on before. They were sat around a low-burning fire beside the hall. A bare pig had been roasted over it, but now it was a mere mound of bone and gristle. Some of the camp’s dogs braved the group to get a lick or bite at it. Knox stopped as he noticed what one of the unknown men was wearing. Draped around his shoulders, the man wore a thick wolf-hide coat; his necklace had numerous fangs on it. The man eyed Knox.

Another man, thin with wiry grey hair and a cloth tied over one eye pointed at Knox. ‘What the fuck are ye looking at, boy?’

‘I don’t like men hunting wolves for sport. Tell him to take it off.’

The thin man gave Knox a yellow smile. ‘That wouldn’t be wise, boy. This here’s Blue-Moon of the Valley-Rain clan. Best fighter on the Jagged Coast. I tell him that and your pelt will be the next one he’ll wear.’

‘I don’t care. Wolves are sacred to these mountains. Take it off.’

Blue-Moon stood up and spat on the ground. Tapa growled at Moon, and Moon growled back. Moon pointed at Tapa. ‘Your wolf will make a nice pair of foot-cloths for me to wear.’

Knox sensed someone beside him. ‘Leave the boy alone.’ Flint-Blade. The man towered over Knox, pale faced and red-eyed, but with a frown that made Knox feel two feet taller.

‘The boy was being rude. Blue-Moon meant no disrespect.’

Flint and Blue-Moon locked eyes, and then Moon nodded and sat back down. Flint’s eyes moved to the thin man. ‘No more talking, sit down and shut up.’

Just having a laugh with the boy is all, Flint.′ The man gave his yellow crooked smile before sitting down.

Flint guided Knox into the Hall and shut out the light behind them, ignoring Knox’s questions. Men were huddled by the newly lit hearths, and only the Six were sat around Hornbeard, who was looking at something held in his hands. White-Fang had returned, but appeared as sullen as ever and was seated on the edge of the group. Flint sat down in his place by the stone chair. Hornbeard looked up and waved Knox to come closer. He held something out to Knox. ‘Do you know what this is?’

‘Some kind of map, chief?’

Sure is. It’s a leather map, a copy of a map from the olden times, when the maps were made far better than this. Look here, these symbols were the strongholds. The Ring of Mountains, you know not actual mountains, but strong as mountains, gone now, each stronghold withered to ruins. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a traveller come through my hall telling me of how the old ruins fared. The land has grown dark and dangerous, lad. I need you to guide the men beyond the western hills. You know the dark forest better than anyone in this camp. I’m relying on you. But after you pass through that, you are in just as unsure lands as they will be. You must listen to them. Understand?′

‘Of course, chief.’

‘I trust you, Knox. This is the last known map of the land, and one of my prized possessions. I would like to hold it once more before I die. You will not know the landmarks shown on the map until you come to them. At times you may fear yourself lost, but I have faith in you lad.’ Hornbeard handed Knox the leather map and smiled. ‘I pray that the gods are with you, my boy.’ He clapped his hands and men began shuffling closer from their hearths. Flint-Blade, Yew-Bow and Clay-Jug stood up and shouldered their packs and belted their weapons. Knox followed suit, but except for his dagger, a pouch of dried meat, and a meagre lump of Blue-Moss, he didn’t have much to carry. The three men were blessed by Hornbeard once more with a slap on the shoulder, and then Knox was given one final nod. Hornbeard gave the crowd of men a sweep of his eye. ‘I call on the gods to bless this gathering, and that my men should make a quick journey over the land. Flint-Blade, as leader of this group, it is your responsibility to make the other clansmen on the journey keep in line.’

Knox glanced at Flint, he hadn’t heard mention of any other people coming on the journey, but it would explain the newcomers in the camp.

‘Our Red-Pine allies have sent four warriors, as has the Valley-Rain clan from the distant valley to the east, whose chief has been promised one of my daughters in return for his aid. Also, the Fae folk have offered some of their healers for the journey, for a little price of course, but they can mend to wounds and such better than anyone else. This is the best protection I can provide. I hope you will all sit in this hall again one day, and I raise my cup to you all. Slainte!’

Each man lifted their drink; ‘Slainte!’ they cheered and Flint led them out of the hall, back into the daylight. The people outside heard the cheering and were now readying for the journey. There were four warriors of the Red-Pines, with their red berry-dyed hides standing out in the bleak encampment. They carried spears and woven-branch shields, a small bow with a quiver of arrows strapped to their backs. The Valley-Rain men wore roughly-spun grey woollen tunics with leather bound in places. Blue-Moon stood a head taller than the rest of his men, and carried a heavy two-handed axe; the others had hatchets or dull metal swords.

The made a rag-tag assortment of warriors, and Knox was stuck right in the middle of them. The Fae women approaching them now were even stranger. Their eyes were slanted, dark, and they had oily skin, hoops and trinkets were worked into their braided hair, so that when they walked they would jingle. Flint frowned at them. The squat fat one approached and stood in front of the two other girls.

‘I am Tashi. I will speak for my people. We will help where we can.’

‘As long as you keep up and don’t cause trouble, you can come. You’ll have to get rid of that shit out of your hair, though. It makes too much noise when you walk. You travel quick and quiet, or not at all.’

’These are our way of life, they have meaning to us. We cannot!′

‘You bloody can!’ shouted Jug, who was already swaying slightly. ‘Or else ye can fuck off!’

The woman sneered at him. Flint held up a hand to quiet Jug and smiled at the woman. ‘Please, take them out. Carry them with you if you must, but if not, the deal made with Hornbeard isn’t going to work. You will attract danger.’

‘Fine, we will do as you say.’ Tashi turned and the women began taking them out. The groups were putting out campfires and checking their gear one final time before setting out.

Knox walked over to Jug and smiled. ‘So what’s the plan, are we heading west?’

‘What? Did ye not hear the plan last night?’

‘No, I went down to the waterfall. Why?’

‘We’re headed down to Old-Sister’s camp first, lad. Old bitch owes the chief provisions. We’re to collect and bring them on our way.’ He smacked his lips. ‘Those shites always made a nice drink for a man to enjoy early in the morning.’

‘Any drink is nice for you, Jug,’ said Yew-Bow, looking out from beneath a cloak. His tall bow was strapped to his back, and it only made him seem all the taller.

Flint walked over and spoke to them. ‘Right lads, we’re travelling in the usual fashion, okay?’

‘Aye,’ the other two agreed.

‘The usual fashion?’ asked Knox, frowning.

Yes lad, I’ll take point with you, Bow will follow behind, and Jug will stay in the middle, keeping the two clans separated. The last thing we is for them to start killing each other before we’re even out of the bloody mountain.′

‘How come I’ve to babysit?’ moaned Jug.

’Because we babysit you, Jug. And it’s about time you returned the favour.′ Flint turned and signalled for the group to follow. Knox hurried to catch up and left Jug to bicker with Bow. Flint had a quick gait, and it took two of Knox’s steps to match his one. The man was known as Flint-Blade not only because he’d been given the knife on joining the Six, but because it was known he was the hardest man in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, except for the old man, of course. And any man, who doubted it--or worse--gave mention to it within earshot of the Flint, had simply vanished. It was known in the valleys and the mountains that the flint-blade on his hip was as swift and silent as death itself.

‘What are you looking at?’ Flint caught Knox staring at the knife, and he looked away quickly.

‘Nothing.’

‘Good. Keep your eyes on the trail.’

They made their way down the steep decline, over pine needles and through growths of bracken. The trail switched back and forth between drop-offs, down stairways of granite slabs of slippery rock. They came to and followed a stream as which snaked its way through the forest floor, and the sun was climbing higher into the sky, when Flint told them to make camp. Jug splashed water over his fire-water reddened face and knotted hair, and peeked into his empty jug longingly. The other two of the Six were having a hushed talk away from the group. The Faes women were dampening their hair and unrolling leather hides, which contained combs. The women brushed each other’s hair and hummed. The small groups muttered amongst themselves, and Knox couldn’t help but watch as one of the girls dashed water on her neck and face. She had bright green eyes and wavy bright hair that was loosely banded into a coil. Her arms were covered with the blue ink they liked to decorate their limbs with.

‘Mind your eyes, lad,’ Flint stood above him now, having soundlessly came closer. ‘Or they’ll steal your soul from them.’

‘I wasn’t looking.’

‘Aye, and a sparrow’s shit isn’t white. I don’t know what Hornbeard was thinking, sending them along. No good will come of it, mark my words.’

They slept without a sentry and set off at daybreak. The light chased away the shadows from beneath the trees, which now grew sparser, with the occasional stump showing signs of habitation. Midday passed them by, only showing them an abandoned hut. Charms had been hung around it, but the creators had long vanished. Small good they’d done them. Inside of the small hut, they found bleached bones of some unfortunate and not much else. That night Knox dreamt of a white lake with a blood moon turning the water scarlet.

The next day they came to the first stick charms symbolizing Old-Sister’s clan, with a sheep’s skull lashed atop it. By the next morning, the rag-tag of animal skulls and bones lashed to sticks were as common and mundane as the birds twittering in the trees. Jug said that they used charms to keep evil spirits away from their camp, but the old bitch still relied on her tall walls all the same.

‘Damn things give me the willies,’ muttered Jug, as they passed the charms by and followed the weathered path to the final descent from the mountains. The faint smell of wood-smoke told them they were near the valley floor, and as they breasted a rise, they came to the edge of a rolling hill overlooking the camp, that was really more of a village, but Flint had warned them that Old-Sister didn’t like the Nordners ways, with their villages and disease and thieves, and wouldn’t take kindly to anyone who dared say she watched over a village herself.

The trees in the valley had long ago been cleared from the area. Old-Sister had made a raised fortification of earthworks in a rough square, with wooden boxes flanking atop the palisade for archers and spearmen to shoot any would-be attackers. Two rows of palisades made the outer defences of the small huddle of buildings, the wall inside being higher, and men could be seen walking on a platform behind the pointed palisades, holding spears or bows. A steep ramp compiled of packed dirt was the only entry into the village, with two small, squat gates that had spikes lashed into the front of them to dissuade any would-be attackers into thinking of ramming it.

‘Damn villages,’ muttered one of the Red-Pine men who had stopped beside Knox and shielded his eyes to look down at the camp. ’There’s nothing but diseases and thieves inside of ‘em.’

‘To be sure,’ said another of the Red-Pine’s, pulling up his leather cap and wiping sweat from his forehead. ‘We avoided this place on the trip here. No good going in there. The bitch’ll cut of your balls off and roast your nuts for pleasure.’

‘What?’ Knox said, unsure he’d heard the man right.

‘Sure everyone knows that Old-Sister likes nothing better than a young man’s balls in her mouth, helps keep her teeth nice and strong.’ The man looked at Knox without humour, and gnashed his teeth together. ‘Fucking cannibal, isn’t she?’

‘You can wait here then, if you’re scared of an old woman.’ Flint frowned at the man, and then strode down the hill, and Knox ran to catch up with him. Looking back, he saw that the Red-Pine men were looking at each other uncertainly, until Jug appeared behind them, and after he gave the ball-story man an all-mighty kick in the arse, they began following Flint down the hill. Knox looked back at Flint as the Valley-Rain men arrived at the hill.

‘What are we doing here?’ asked Knox, who was surprised when he got an answer.

‘Didn’t I tell you already, lad? We’re just getting provisions and better equipment. Old-Sister owes Hornbeard, so we’re getting the matter settled on our way westward.’

‘But west is the other way.’

‘I know that Knox. Just because you’re our guide doesn’t mean I don’t know my arse from me fucking elbow, lad!’

‘Sorry.’

‘Look, we need more food, dried food that won’t rot after a few moons, and warmer clothing. The mountains to the west are much larger than what we’re used to. Steeper and colder. The Cold Days will be upon us soon, and Old-Sister has good wool from the sheep she keeps. We need warmer clothes and dried food, or else we’ll freeze and starve in the mountain passes long before the Dark Ones get here.’

Knox flinched, but when his breath caught in his throat it was from a leap of excitement, not fear. ‘So you think the story is real then? That the Dark Ones have returned?’

‘I don’t know, lad. That’s not to worry about right now. My task is to get us to Hornbeard’s brother and see what’s happening there. Once I set my eyes on it, then I’ll know and I can act. Until then...’ Flint stopped talking as they reached the ramp. Heads appeared over the palisade walls, and now shouting could be heard and more movement was happening beyond the gate.

As he walked up the ramp, a voice called out from behind it. ‘Who’s out there?’

‘It’s Flint-Blade, from the Grey-Wolf clan. Hornbeard sent us down to collect some provisions and equipment.’

‘Is that old bandit trying to bleed us dry again? Old-Sister settled that debt with him!’

‘Well open up this gate and I’ll hear it from her lips, if it’s all the same to you.’

Silence followed. The rest of the group caught up, and they watched the gate for a time. Footsteps approached the gate then, and the sound of a whip sounded from beyond it. The gate slowly lifted, and grated its way over the hard-packed earth as they were pulled aside by large oxen. Knox followed Flint inside, and the first thing he noticed was the smell of shit. The place reeked. Naked children ran from their path as they passed by wattle-and-daub huts and plots of land where wheat was being grown. Women looked up from butchering sheep at the corner of a stone-and-earth building. Other women were crushing bones or spinning wool, stitching clothes, milking goats. Knox peeked into the building as they passed, and guessed it was their hall, as smoke wafted out from inside, as did the sound of men’s laughter. Men were sat here and there, sharpening weapons, fletching arrows, working flint. Knox was unsettled by the sheer amount of people in the village. Flint passed the people by without a second look. They approached a large building situated above the rest of the village; it had beams of wood worked into the ground for steps. The building itself could have fit Hornbeard’s hall three of four times inside of it. Once inside, after leaving their weapons at the door with the warriors, Knox saw that its roof appeared to be made out of thick branches lashed together. Hides had been piled over it to block out the rain, and numerous bones, skulls and other unusual things hung from the network of wood. Knox couldn’t help but stare up at it in awe at it.

They had used some kind of white pigment to make signs and symbols on the hides of the roof, depicting animals being hunted by tribesmen. There were vivid depictions of wolves, foxes, deer, mammoths and boar to name just a few. Other, larger scenes depicted strange god-like creatures with large skulls and dark eyes, building their stone temples, and then a scene where the humans came across the land bridges, and then beginning to worship the gods with sacrifices, animal and human.

Jug saw Knox looking and leaned in close. ‘The old gods, Old-Sister and Hornbeard are some of the last in the land who still worship them, besides the Druids, that is.’ Jug nodded toward the groups scattered about the cavernous hall. They made their way through the crowd, following Flint towards the raised platform at the centre. Knox saw old crones clad in loose rags, they stared at him from painted faces, bones twisted into their noses and ears. Others, younger men and women, were smoking pipes, half-naked, muttering around smoking fires as they made charms or told stories. The place was filled with writhing bodies, some playing on hide drums, others dancing, drinking, and mating. Men told children tales, he heard a few words of the battle of the Flying Flames, when the old gods had made war on each other, a tale that Knox knew well from childhood, and he couldn’t help but smile.

‘Old-Sister likes to think of herself as a god. But don’t say anything that might seem we think otherwise. She won’t take kindly to it, y’know?’ Knox nodded at Jug, who was walking beside him. They neared the raised platform and the crowd began to quieten. An ancient woman sat in a chair of bones stood up. She lifted her long staff with a skull attached to the end into the air. The old woman stared at Flint, her eyes were milk-white, but Knox could feel the sharp penetration of those eyes when they passed over him.

‘Hornbeard sends men to my hall. Why?’

Flint knelt, and the rest followed. ‘Old-Sister, we come on order of our chief. He asks you provide us with food and warm clothing. We must travel to the western lands. The flames have been seen on the water.’

‘Strange shadows follow in your wake. Dark shadows. Our rune-readers know of the flames. I have warned Hornbeard for many moons that the time was near. And now the old man thinks he can force me to give him what he wants just because I have readied myself and my people, he would take from me out of spite? We only have enough for our own survival. How can I give you what I do not have to spare?’

‘Hornbeard asks for your help, and only wants what is owed to him.’

‘What is owed? I owe him nothing. I only owe the gods! It is easy for him to take what I need, when he is safe in his high mountain, where he thinks the Dark Ones will not find him. Meanwhile I am ravaged by beasts and strange spirits in these forests surrounding us! What would you have me do? Send my people into the deep forest hungry and cold? Why not take a dagger to their throats right now and save them the suffering?’

Old-Sister offered Flint a crude dagger made from stone and bone.

‘What ails you, Old-Sister? What spirits do you speak of?’

Old-Sister turned and spat onto the floor. The room had fallen silent. She spoke after a long pause, her eyes two wide and dark orbs. ‘Some say that Fugrah lurks in the trees. Four of my men, good warriors all, have went into the woods to hunt the beast, and vanished. No tracks, no trace. Just gone!’ She snapped her fingers.

‘A Fugrah? Hasn’t been a Fugrah seen since olden times,’ Jug frowned at the old woman. ‘How do you know it is as you say it is?’

‘My watchers on the wall have seen the creature, it appears when the mist rises, and always just beyond the reach of our bows. Its shadow lingers behind the trees, watching us.’

‘If we kill the beast, would you give us the debt owed?’ Jug stifled a hiccup. Flint gave Jug a look that quieted the man.

’It is not owed. But if you bring me back the head of the Fugrah, I will give you what you need. My men will hunt once again in the forests and my sheep will not need to be butchered. Yes, you shall have what you need. But there was no debt!’

‘Then it is settled. We head out at first light. May my men take food and drink in your hall tonight?’ The old woman agreed. Flint looked at his warriors. ‘You may take drink, but make sure your minds are clear for the hunt. I must speak with the men on the walls. Yew-Bow, come with me.’ Flint then left the room with Bow.

Knox sat with Clay-Jug and the Red-Pines as they shared a platter of roasted meat and jugs of ale.

‘Aint none of our concern,’ one of the Valley-Rain men were grumbling. ‘Why should we risk our necks for these fools?’

‘Cos Flint says so, so shut yer mouth,’ growled Jug.

‘Probably just some pack of wolves or bear or the like,’ one of the Red-Pine men said as he chewed on a piece of meat. ‘Aint no such thing as a Fugrah, they’re only stories to scare children to sleep.’

‘Nah, my grandfather told me that there were still some left, back when he hunted in the far marsh lands to the south-east, he spoke of an animal that could tear a full-gorwn stag in half and leave what it doesn’t want up a tree. Said the scratch marks left in the body and the trees weren’t the like a mammoth or bear.’ Jug took a mug of ale from a platter going around the hall.

’Well, if there’s something out there, we’re gonna find it, and we’re gonna kill it. No point worrying what it is ‘til we get onto its trail.’

Jug had emptied the mug, and was now refilling his mug with fire-water an old man offered him. ‘And Yew-Bow,’ said Jug, sipping a taste of the fire-water, ‘is the best tracker that ever walked these lands.’ Jug handed Knox the jug when he was finished with it. Knox took a swig, wincing as the liquid scalded his throat. The drummers in the large hut-like building had been keeping to a steady beat. Women swirled and danced around the newcomers now, and laughed as they brushed their arms or hair against the men. Knox saw one of the Fae girls dancing, her arms linked around other dancers. Jug smiled, ‘Go on, lad. Get up there and join her. You’re too shy with the women.’

‘Me? I’m no good at dancing, Jug.’

‘Don’t matter if ye can’t dance, lad. Get up there and just put one foot in front of the other, and here’s a fine piece of help. Try not t’step on the girl’s toes. It’s as easy as fucking a pig, trust me!’ Jug stood up then and slipped the cord of his freshly refilled jug around his neck, and grabbed Knox by the arm. The fat man was strong, and pulled him up despite Knox resisting. Knox couldn’t help but laugh as he was pulled around in circles by Jug, and into the group of swirling dancers. Jug gave him a final wink, before he let go of Knox’s hands and vanished into the crowd.

A girl from the village had her arm wrapped in Knox’s, and her face was painted with white dots on her cheeks and chin. She spun around, making Knox almost trip up over her feet, but he kept his balance, and she laughed as she let go, spinning him around, and Knox was caught by somebody in the next group. The room spun away from him, and then back at him, and the faces came and went just as quick. Drinks were poured into his mouth as he danced, and the torches on the walls and on the roof began to blur and smear. The rhythms changed somehow, without Knox noticing, and the dances were quicker now, women and men’s faces came into view, flushed and blushing, eyes maddened in the flames of the fires being lit. Old-Sister’s chair was above him then, and the crowd were dancing around it, and the ancient woman watched the crowd with a smile on her grey lips.

And beyond the edge of the camp, from the darkness, the Fugrah watched…

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