That was that; there was no pursuing them through the woods even if they had been worth the trouble. We put out the fires, moved the tree out of the road, and looked in the ramshackle little hut before knocking it down. There were a couple of coppers, a bag of turnips and a bag of radishes someone must have tossed the "toll-takers" out of pity. None of us had seen the red-eye flag before, but we suspected that it didn't bode well.
"May I have the radishes, please?" Conner inquired. No one objected.
We traveled on with nothing much of note happening until we had been in the mountains more than a week. The solstice had passed and been celebrated properly. Conner gave Meara a perfectly fitted blouse he had made for her during the evenings in camp. I tried to picture them as a couple; didn't work. We continued through the uplands, passing the occasional flock of grazing sheep and their frolicking lambs.
"Some fine wool on those sheep," Conner remarked one afternoon as we continued our slow progress.
"There are... thirty-seven sheep." Gannon calculated taxes owed.
Llweder said hello to the sheep.
One night not too long after that, while digging the firepit, something squished under Meara's shovel. Investigation proved that we had found our missing exchequer, but the mystery was if anything deepened, since it didn't look as if he had been killed by humans. Something had torn him to shreds, not eaten any of the body, wrapped the remains in his black and white cloak, and carefully buried him with his clothes, his sword and dagger, official ring, and the fifty pounds in salted fish Caer Myrrthin had paid its taxes with no mysterious gold this year. We found his mule buried a short distance away; animals had been at that before it was buried.
Both normal animal and human agency seemed unlikely. No way to tell if he had been killed there or brought from somewhere higher up to ground where he could be buried; the spot made a good campsite, so the former seemed somewhat more probable, but the whole thing was very odd.
"I guess we should take back the ring and the dagger and the sword," Meara sighed. "Let's leave the salted fish here."
"We'll leave it for his woodland friends," I agreed with a nod at our druid.
"Yes, we will," Llweder stated. "And we will leave the mule for my woodland friends, as well."
"And we will move camp," I added.
Meara performed the appropriate ceremonies for the dead, and Llweder built a small cairn. We moved on in the darkness and found another campsite, no longer trusting the stream near the previous one.
A few days later the path we were on reached the top of a ridge. We had finally reached the coast; about a hundred and fifty yards to the left of where we were standing, the ground took an abrupt downward turn to meet the sea. There was also a real road before us, ancient and well worn, leading along the ridge to the northwest, where about ten miles off stood a tower.
As we drew closer, it became clear that it was a watchtower, and it was not abandoned; a column of smoke started up from it. There was no one there when we reached the place. It was a simple square tower thirty feet high, with a ladder leading to the platform up top where the fire burned. The watcher had left behind a couple jugs of water and a coarse loaf.
"They'd be fools not to post a watch," Meara shrugged.
The tower itself perched on a precipice, from which we looked down into a bowl-shaped valley half-filled by the sea. The ridge ran in nearly a complete circle around it. High promontories reached out from each side like pincers to enclose the harbor, with its entrance to the west. There was a fishing village down by the water, big enough to hold a hundred and fifty people or so. An old curtain wall further divided the valley, with a watchtower like the one we stood at every mile along its length an impressive effort. In the rough center of the valley stood a square four-towered keep of old-fashioned design. A river ran down from the hills to the east, through a gap in the curtain wall, past the keep, and spilled over a spectacular fall into what was probably a swamp before continuing into the harbor. Between the village and the swamp were cultivated lands and light forest. On the opposite side of the valley, beyond the castle, stood a stone circle and sacred grove.
All of which was well and good, a lovely little demesne. The part that made all of us stare was the curtain of darkness that fell through the center of the keep, the center of the swamp, the center of the harbor, etc. It was night on that side of the valley. We could see stars from where we were standing. It was hard to get a good fix on its size, but it looked like the darkness formed a circle five or six miles across.
"Oh, hell," Conner muttered.
"I don't suppose you brought homing pigeons?" Meara asked.
"Sorry, didn't think to pack any of those," I replied.
"Does this look like an eye to anyone else?" She squinted at the valley's bones, the smaller circle of the harbor nearly enclosed by the land.
"I was thinking more of claws, myself."
"I'm all for exploring this, but we should probably give some thought to somehow notifying your father that there's something here. However we want to do it."
"He knows there's something here, that's why he sent us."
"No, this is a little more important than 'go and figure out why my tax collector got jumped.' Your average guys that jump tax collectors don't cause curtains of nightfall."
Some discussion followed on the merits of that suggestion. The darkness was certainly creepy enough, but it was hard to say how much of a threat it represented, if any. It was a long ride back to the capital, and we had no way of knowing yet if the locals were trustworthy enough to send.
Besides, one might end up torn to shreds and buried....
"Do you guys have any sort of spells that could be used to send a message?" I asked the magical experts.
"At this distance, milady? I'm afraid not," Conner admitted.
"No, but I can inscribe it here on this stone, in ogham, so if we don't come back, anyone who comes after us will know what happened," Llweder offered. That would be better than nothing, assuming the next group to come by brought a druid with them.
I, Llweder of Rhys, was here with my companions and we went to investigate the obscene darkness on this date, he wrote.
"This is a nice little setup they've got here, aside from the curtain of darkness and all," I remarked, looking out over the harbor. Meara agreed.
"You mean that's your only complaint? The curtain of darkness?" Conner inquired with heavy sarcasm.
"Well, that and the fact that they didn't pay their taxes...."
"It looks like they did pay their taxes," the priestess reminded her of one of the buried bundles.
"Good point." Unless they'd killed the exchequer's man themselves, of course.
"Just in salted fish this time," Conner said. "That small village might explain that." He looked about the tower for tracks and confirmed that the man who had signaled our arrival had gone in the direction of the next tower in the line. Gazing across the valley at the unnatural night, he noticed something else as well. "Someone's leaving the keep. Small column of men, they're heading off into the dark side."
"All right, then. Let's go talk to the villagers," Meara suggested.
"Yeah, we'll blend." The tall man climbed back down the ladder.
"At no point in my life have I ever managed to blend anywhere," was the cheerful reply.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al