We got moving again. No pillar of smoke rose from the second tower, and there was no one there when we reached it, but a short way past that we saw someone coming up from the village to meet us.
Two someones,, in an actual by-the-gods woven war chariot with a couple of old skulls hanging off the sides, drawn by two sullen-looking ponies. The driver was only a boy, but with him was an unusually large and extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a bronze breastplate and Cynnydd colors, probably the head of their warband.
This wasn't just the back end of nowhere, it was the back end of time. Several hundred years of history appeared to have passed this place by without comment.
"My mother would... I'm so sorry she's not here. Actually, I'm so sorry she's not here for a number of reasons," Meara observed.
"I'm sorry my master's not here, she's sorry her dad's not here, it would make everything easier," Connor sighed regretfully.
"If our parents were here?"
"Well, not my parents exactly, I doubt we could tailor our way out of this.... I suppose we continue, milady?"
"Certainly." The two didn't look as if they were supposed to be a threat.
A little ways ahead the chariot came to a halt; the tall woman leaped over the ponies' heads in a showy display of prowess, then stood waiting, spear planted in the roadway.
I dismounted so as to be on more equal ground. I have to stand on my toes to see over Griffon's back, and he rather forces one to talk down to people.
"Welcome to Myrrthin," the tall woman offered in polite but not overly warm tones.
"Thank you for your welcome."
"And you might be?"
"Ariana ap Rhys." I watched the woman's body language: still noncommittal. Could be worse, then. There are those who don't like us much.
"And your companions?"
"Connor, my tailor, Gannon, my accountant, the priestess Meara of Rose, and this is Llweder. And you are?"
"Gaenor ap Morvan." This conflicted with the colors she was wearing, but that could mean a couple of things. "Would you like to come down and meet the headsmen?"
Our druid grunted.
"Don't mind Llweder...."
The boy turned the chariot neatly, and we all followed the road through the break in the curtain wall, down a steep grade leading down the village. It wasn't bad to walk down, and Griffon handled it all right, but we thought we knew why the ponies were so grouchy.
"What brings you to Myrrthin Village?" Gaenor asked on the way, apparently entirely at home in the precariously pitched chariot. That kid was one heck of a driver.
"Couple of things," I replied. "The last exchequer sent up this way vanished, so we thought we should take a look around." I didn't mention that we'd found him already, of course, curious to see what they had to say on the topic.
"I'm sure we've got records someplace. We did pay, he was here," she told me.
"How long ago?"
"Three months, maybe four." Which seemed to fit with the time he'd been missing.
At the bottom of the slope, a few people who'd been watching us approach went back to their usual chores. Twenty or so longhouses clustered together formed the village proper, with a few scattered outbuildings and then the fields and some tended forestland. From this distance we could see the walls of the keep better; they were stark white stone. Either imported, or someone had done a lot of whitewashing.
"Looks like a nice little place you've got here," I remarked.
"Gannon, is it just me or have they not mentioned the whole curtain of night thing?" Conner asked his friend quietly.
"I've noticed that, too.... You'd expect a little, 'Oh, don't mind our curtain of night.'"
"Or, 'Why, isn't that odd?'"
"'I realize you might be finding our curtain of darkness odd....'"
"It is a very good question," Llweder judged, breaking ranks to approach Gaenor. "How long has this unnatural darkness been here?"
"Half a century or better," she shrugged.
"Are you based out of the Keep?" Meara asked, now that the general topic had been broached and no one had taken offense.
"No, we try to avoid the keep. It's the ghost," she explained matter-of-factly.
"Ghost?" I raised an eyebrow.
Llweder asked, "Is the ghost the cause of the darkness?"
"That's a good question. He doesn't take well to visitors, so we try to avoid asking. We did try, but nobody came back, so we decided it was probably a bad idea to try and we just left it alone."
"'Course, for all we know the ghost is keeping the darkness from seeping further south," Meara said thoughtfully.
"How long has the ghost been there?" Gannon wanted to know.
"Oh, fifty years, maybe a little bit better."
"Is the darkness perpetually here, or does it turn to day?" Llweder asked.
"It's always dark over there."
"That's got to be murder on your crops over there," Conner observed.
"That's why we're not on that side of the valley. That, and there's stuff over there," she added.
"I hesitate to ask." But he did. "Stuff?"
"It'd probably be best if you could wait a couple of moments and ask Rhonwen."
We reached the main longhall, which was thinly populated at the moment as most of the villagers were out fishing, and were introduced to Rhonwen ap Cynnydd, who wore the tokens of a chieftain and like Gaenor was astonishingly beautiful. This place was starting to seem unusual in all kinds of ways.
"I feel like I've stepped into a myth," Meara muttered. "I really do. I mean the next thing you know we're going to have a druid walk out of a back corner shining in white raiment."
"Sorry, we're short on druids here, have been for a while," was Gaenor's unruffled reply.
"Really?" Llweder rumbled.
"For about fifty years?" Meara guessed.
"For about fifty years, yes," the chieftain confirmed as we approached.
"I am a druid. What happened to my brethren?" he demanded.
"We're not entirely sure. None of them came back after the night fell."
"They went to investigate the darkness and never came back?" I guessed.
"Actually they were pretty much already over there."
Llweder grunted. "I saw their ceremonial grounds were covered by the darkness?"
"They probably summoned up some forces of hell or something, it's all their fault," Meara muttered. The druid growled.
"I don't know," Rhonwen admitted, changing the subject to business. "Welcome to Myrrthin. What can we do for you? We've already paid our taxes this year, got papers on that."
For form's sake, the papers were checked and found to be in order. The late tax collector had done his job with commendable thoroughness. The village was still paying taxes on the castle despite the fact that it was apparently unusable, which didn't seem quite right.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al