"Last year you paid in gold," Meara observed.
Rhonwen took it as a question. "It was a thin year last year. The fish weren't running well."
"And?" I prodded, as this did not seem much of an answer.
She sighed; the subject seemed to irritate her a bit. "Well, it was my husband's fault. You can ask him the details if you like when he gets back in. He got the idea into his head that 'since we were paying taxes on the damn castle anyway, the damn ghost could cough up some bloody money to cover us for a lean year.' He took off one night and came back with a chest of gold."
"And we paid." She shrugged. "Small chest of gold, we gave it to the tax collector, who took the money."
"I was given to understand that those who visit the keep don't normally come back?" I asked.
"They don't," she confirmed. "As I said, I didn't go; I thought it was a damn fool idea and told my husband not to."
"But it worked out well?"
"Worked out well in the end, I guess. Came back, certainly seems to be him."
"Made him sleep in the smokehouse for a month until I was sure of it," she added cheerfully.
"She seems a remarkably prudent woman," Conner murmured to Gannon; they were staying out of the women's way while the talk went on.
"Can we start at fifty years ago?" Meara suggested.
"Fifty years ago, and what?" Rhonwen looked at her blankly.
"Fifty years ago, give or take some what happened?" she wanted to know. The calm acceptance these people had of their landscape's unusual feature was more unnerving than the feature itself.
"Whence the great darkness?" Llweder intoned.
Her reply was matter-of-fact. "We woke up one morning and the dark didn't go away on about half the valley."
"Do you recall what day it was?"
"Midsummer, somewhere about that, seeing as how I wasn't alive and all. It was about midsummer."
"Was there anyone living in the keep at that time?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. The king was living there. And we're pretty sure some of his men were there at the time."
"And at no time have the tax collectors ever noted this little curtain of darkness thing for the last fifty years?" Meara was amazed.
"I think we're going to have to get a little more specific about their instructions," I agreed.
"Excuse me, milady," Gannon broke in humbly. "There is no space on the tax form for anything of that nature."
"The ones that show up at my family's holdings always ask us how the weather's been, because invariably that's an excuse," Meara shot back. "Any strange meteorological phenomena... I would think that's a strange meteorological phenomenon!"
"In all fairness, my lady, as long as the taxes are paid, there's really no need to question."
"Maybe you want to actually question why the taxes are paid in the future."
"I'm wondering," I asked Rhonwen while they argued. "Our missing exchequer, while he was here, did he visit the keep?" Had he incurred the ghost's wrath?
"No. Where did he go? Did he spend much time here?"
"He was here for a few days, maybe a week. He came in, took the year's count, set out his table, collected his taxes, left."
"Didn't nose around or anything like that?"
"No worse than any exchequer does. He checked under the floorboards to see if we're secretly hiding a vast store of weapons or perhaps an invading army. He's an exchequer, he was good at his job. He nosed around, found out the stuff he was supposed to, not in truth that we're hiding all that much here."
"The guys that the people who left the castle to go talk to are probably are hiding shitloads of stuff," Meara observed.
"People left the castle?" Rhonwen sounded startled.
"Something left the castle."
"Was it coming this way?"
"There was a column of men. Heading off into the night," Conner told her.
"Oh." She appeared to dismiss the information. "Okay. It goes that way, I'm not worried about it. It comes this way, I'm worried about it."
"I'm just slightly concerned that it went that way so it can come this way so it can come this way later," the priestess pointed out.
"Are there ever any supernatural incursions out of the darkness?" Llweder asked.
"Not usually. Occasionally something comes out of there, but for the most part Gudrun keeps stuff from coming through the swamp. Gudrun Trollwife," she clarified in response to several queries. "She lives in the swamp."
"Maybe we should do a census one of these years," I muttered. Though given the way Powys is, it would save time to hire madmen to conduct it right from the start. Wouldn't hurt the chances for accuracy any. "But things do occasionally come out, they just don't bother you?"
"Occasionally you get a large wolf, things like that."
"'Large,' unnaturally large?" Gannon asked. The people of Myrrthin appeared to have taciturn down to a fine art.
"Yeah, unnaturally large. There's some eight-foot leeches in the swamp, if you're not careful," she added in a burst of communicativeness.
"We'll try to avoid that," I muttered.
"Things like that."
"Things like that. So, nothing too out of the usual for this place." Given the circle of darkness, I wouldn't have been surprised to find far stranger wildlife.
"No." She shook her head. "Hasn't been anything weird in thirty years or so."
"What happened thirty years ago?" Meara inquired.
"My mother told me that there was a murder of flesh-eating ravens came out of there."
"That was sort of a pain."
"Ravens can be painful, yes," she nodded with feeling. "Extremely painful."
"For the most part, whatever's going on over there tends to stay over there, and we're kind of happy that it does. Every now and then we have to chase something back or kill it."
"These abominations must cease," Llweder stated.
"It's hardly an abomination, just something that's slightly odd," the priestess replied.
"It is completely unnatural."
"You just want to go find out what happened to the druids, don't you?" Conner guessed.
"Which we're going to do," Meara assured him. "We need to go over to that circle and see what happened to them."
"Of course," I smiled, eager be about it. The best I'd hoped for out of this trip was some bandits; this was quite a bit more interesting.
"I think that's part and parcel of the whole thing."
| Top |
© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al