You’re a bloody fool Cane.”
Conversations within the Severed Ram came to an abrupt halt. I became the center of attention and felt the color rise in my cheeks, as someone stifled a laugh in the tap-room.
Like a farmyard cockerel, I knew that a challenge left unmet would plague me. I stood and smiled nervously. “And you, Jack Habkin, have spent too much time by the fireside and not enough out doing work. Damp moors too much at your age?”
The old man gave me a look I hadn’t seen before, it could have been anger, or fear. I toyed with the lining of my poacher’s coat, my thumb caressed the edges of a metal trap.
“Fine, go out beyond the Meeting Stones, pass the Withens for all I care, go and pay a visit to Lord Mire at Grimward Tor if you’re determined to be a fool.’ Habkin drained his pint of wheat ale at a gulp and stomped out, somewhat theatrically. Conversations resumed.
“Sometimes, friendship comes in strange disguises” said Rowan, the landlord. He leant on the bar in front of me, his breath a potpourri of pickled eggs and sour ale. “And to make a man seem a fool in front of his kin and friends is not an easy thing for a mate to do.”
“I know he means little harm, he just interferes too much at times.”
“With the best intentions.”
“There are some of us who still recall the Tor as children, and the noises beneath it. Don’t go Joshua, the game may be sparse but at least it’s safe near the village.”
“Safe doesn’t feed my family, and if all the game on the moors hereabouts has gone, I must look further.” I shouldered my pack and moved towards the door.
“Then watch yourself, and gods watch over you and keep you from the Soul at the Heart of the Mire.”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t need to. I had to feed my family and for five nights running my snares had been bare, tonight needs must drive me further. The night was clear and chill. Beyond the Greensides, Lubbing’s Lamp lit the night sky and sea with the regular slash of green and yellow glare, giving the land an ethereal quality. I marched uphill and away from the smell of fire and the dim light of village candles.
It is hard to describe how a man feels when he walks in silence, thoughts cross his head, regrets and joys and lost opportunities focus, as do the love of those close to him. I was almost upon the Shepherd’s Meeting Stones when I began to think about my nights work again.
The stones were named after the infrequent meetings that occurred between shepherds high on the moor above the village. Happy chance led two strangers together for company over a bit of food, a change from dreary surroundings, or simply someone to sit peaceably with for a time. Life could be lonely for the shepherds, lonely and hard in winter, and even in summer one would occasionally vanish, straying in the wrong direction.
The wrong direction.
Eerie light chased across the mires ahead and below, swamps and bogs and hills alive with superstition, and game. Game was seldom troubled out across the Grimward, no one dared to cross, but tonight my family’s need drove me. I paused momentarily and took a few tentative steps across unfamiliar ground.
The land seemed easy enough. I was not suddenly drawn into some unnatural mire or bog, no will-o-wisp suddenly flew before me, nor did any wicked devil spring from the ground breathing brimstone. I moved quickly onward and began to gain in confidence, soon finding half a dozen tors with signs of rabbits on their greensward flanks. I placed my snares over the rabbit holes and even whistled a hymn to myself as I worked. In a very short time my work was done, and I turned back to head towards the Shepherd’s Meetings Stones.
It is incredible how quick confidence can vanish. I turned expecting see the Meeting Stones above me and saw only an approaching wall of mist. Suddenly all the surety fled, to be replaced by a sudden panic, which it took all my inner strength to fight against. I had walked across the mire, and my footsteps would be visible in the land. I would simply take my time and retrace my steps. Pushing uncertainty to the dark corners of my mind, I slowly picked my way in the direction I convinced myself was home.
My plan worked for a time. Even in the scant light of the starlit sky, I was able to make out depressions and signs which I felt sure were my own.
I soon reached the first tor.
My heart sank when I realised instantly that I had not been here before. A towering mass of stone, weathered and slashed by winter gale and spring rain towered over me. Suddenly an eerie light lit its summit and I was momentarily heartened – if Lubbing’s Lamp flecked its summit then I was certain to be able to see the land and thus, make my way home.
Home to my loved ones.
Then I heard the noise, a hissing breath such as those with consumption give out in the last moments of life, when fear and dread and realisation takes them to their graves. I was shaking as I turned to face the direction of the noise, a hissing, dying breath that had so startled me. At first I could see nothing, for the mists had crept so close to my back that they almost touched me.
Then I saw the figure step through the blessed curtains of concealment and I fell, my fingers meeting damp earth. I felt the earth writhe in my hands and looked down to see that I was sitting on a hill of flesh, a rising mass of worms and decay and torment that had a voice, and anger.
I sprang to my feet, my mind paralysed by the thing that appeared through the mist. It was something dead, yet hateful life stirred in its skull, a fire the colour of blood and misery. This lich of unlife held aloft a great scythe, a light dancing upon its blade even in the darkness of this dreadful cloying mire. The antlers of a great stag rested upon its wizened brow like a crown. This king of old still wore his rags of office – a cloak and robe stained with a thousand winters…