"I'm going to suggest that if you're going to do that, you at least wait until tomorrow," Rhonwen told us.
"I'm not going anywhere near there during our night," Meara stated.
"Let's at least try to be well-rested beforehand," I conceded.
"Though actually I think I'd like to try bothering the ghost first. He might actually talk to you."
"It's worth a try."
"In that case, you should probably talk to Artos when he gets back," the chieftain suggested.
"We'll do that."
After a quiet moment Meara said, "How... I know that this is a difficult question to ask, but what do your local faeries say about this?"
"That wouldn't be a bad question to ask, if there were any."
"That's what I was afraid of."
"If you don't mind, I have things to arrange." Rhonwen nodded to us all and left the longhall.
I gave Meara a quizzical look. "This meaning...?" I didn't want to jump to conclusions.
"It could mean nothing, it could.... Have you ever been in the woods and you notice all the sudden you can't hear any animals and you get this really spooky feeling? Now, most of the time it's because the animals notice something dangerous, so they're just being really quiet and you can't find them. Every once in a while you're in a woods where there's no animals because they had the good sense to leave."
"It could be that the local faeries are just being really quiet, because they don't want something dangerous to notice them, or they went away, in which case we've got a whole 'nother problem."
"Something to keep in mind, then."
We'd been in the village about an hour, and had been shown to a room off the main hall to use as quarters, when the fishing boats began returning. In the meantime we determined that while the villagers were a universally nice-looking bunch, they didn't all look like Gaenor and Rhonwen, which came as something of a relief. Llweder wandered out into the forest to get information from the local wildlife; the animal populations seemed healthy enough. He found a badger who was willing to chat about the other side of the valley.
"It's night over there," the creature told him simply.
"Do animals go there?"
"There's predators over there."
"What kind of predators?"
"Big, teeth, claws. Bigger than me, teeth, claws. I tend to stay here."
He learned that from the animals' points of view, there was nothing unnatural about the darkness itself, it was simply night, and the stars and moon were correct. Llweder could think of several perfectly reasonable explanations for it. At the same time there was a hint or two that nature as a whole might have been somewhat warped by all the magic in the vicinity, some of which felt unnatural, some of which didn't. The eight-foot leeches in particular were something of a warning that all was not well. The badger was a sociable sort, and they had a very pleasant conversation, after which the druid spent a few moments communing with nature before reluctantly rejoining the others.
Meanwhile, Meara went wandering in search of birds. Sparrows, gulls, and plovers seemed to make up most of the local population. She tried talking to one of the latter, asked it, "Ever fly over the castle?"
"No because you've just never gone that way, or no because you know better?"
"No 'cause I know better," the plover piped.
"Do you know what happens to anything that's stupid enough to fly over it?"
"Doesn't come back."
"Know anybody that nests near there?"
"Know of any nests on the other side?"
"All right. Thanks."
Back in the longhouse, a tall, strongly built man who looked like he deserved the name Artos breezed into the place and swept Rhonwen into his arms.
"My god, this is like being at home," I muttered.
Meara gave her a curious look. "Is it true that your parents actually"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I think it's kind of sweet. I'm glad I don't have to put up with it," she admitted readily, "but I think it's kind of sweet."
"Sweet, yes. Sickening."
Artos disappeared for a moment and returned with most of the salt gone from his hair and beard. "So, what can I do for you?" Not only was he as appallingly good-looking as his wife, he had a marvelous voice to match.
"We're a bit curious about yonder keep," I told him.
"All of them, they walked right out of a bardic story," Meara murmured.
"Why are we necessary? Why can't they get over the curse themselves?" Llweder wondered, sotto voce. He was being unusually talkative; I suppose the darkness had him by the curiosity.
"Apparently they just don't give a damn," Conner speculated.
"So my wife said you wanted to know something?" Artos went on, oblivious to the other discussion. While we talked, dinner was being collected, laid out, and consumed. Fish featured rather heavily, of course.
"We were thinking about paying your ghost a visit."
"I wouldn't suggest it. He's not all that social."
"So I gather, but you seem to be the only one that's ever spoken to him, at least that we've found so far."
"He didn't kill me," Artos shrugged.
"I was pleased with it."
"Do you happen to know why not?"
"He had a perfectly reasonable request and was willing to go away and not bother him?" Meara guessed.
"That was probably part of it," he conceded with a bit of a twinkle.
"And the rest of it?" she prodded.
"Well, I'd laid a whole bunch of brush around the outside edge of the castle, and I was standing there with a torch and a couple of oilskins, so if he killed me I'd fall and light the place on fire."
Most of us were a bit taken aback by this straightforward approach.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, I've got it here someplace...." Meara rooted in her pack for a moment. "This my father made for my mother, it's the Damnfool of the Year Award." It was a tiny silver raven, quite finely made.
"Thank you," he replied, a bit nonplussed. At least he didn't seem offended.
"I like the way you think, sir," I told him.
Artos resumed his story. "So, he decided it wasn't entirely an unreasonable request, especially if I was willing to take all that brush away with me when I left."
"So here's a question, is he actually a ghost, or is he wandering around in a body?" Meara asked.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al