Rhiannon snugged deeper into her coarse woolen overcoat. Snow stung her face, but she was tired of turning first one way and then another in a futile attempt to avoid it. Strands of her hair escaped from under her hood, lured by the stiff wind. Black curls plastered themselves in front of her eyes, making it even harder to see. Drawing in a lungful of chilly air that froze everything in its path, she whistled for Reil, her herding dog. The howl of the wind obliterated the sound. Hoping he’d heed her call just the same and come anyway, leading the sheep with him, she plodded heavily through what had turned into knee-deep snow, heading for home.
Her breath rose before her like a fine mist, a miniature cloud amidst the falling show. “I should’ve known better,” she muttered, watching more plumes rise from her mouth. “I knew there was a storm comin’. And, Jake, well he knew, too.”
Rhiannon stopped walking. The implications of what she’d just given voice to jolted her. It wasn’t as if Jake was anything like her real father. He’d just shown up one day a few years ago, suspiciously close on the heels of her Pa’s death. Ma’d been gone for even longer. She’d run off with a bard not long after Effie’d been born.
Because it was just too cold to stand still, Rhiannon whistled for Reil again, following up her whistle with a stern shout before she started moving again. As she struggled against the storm, eyes narrowed to the merest of slits, her thoughts turned to her brother and two sisters. She was oldest and had taken over most of the care-taking for the O’Connell brood after their Ma had fled… A rustle loud enough to be heard over the storm caught at her. Gladness welled as a black flash of fur pelted through the storm, whuffing softly.
“ Well?” Hands on her hips, she peered through the snow. “What’ve you done with ‘em?”
As if he understood, the old sheepdog took off barking shrilly. In a few moments, she saw him again, nipping and worrying at the heels of the four new sheep Jake had sent her to bring home. Oh, she’d argued about having to go out on a day such as this, to be sure. But he’d said it was a wondrous bargain. That she had to go immediately to take advantage of the deal he’d struck at market the previous day. Why, the sheep were practically free, leastways according to Jake. But he’d had that knowing leer in his eyes that told her he’d been up to no good.
Regardless, they needed the sheep. Knowing that, she’d bundled up as best she could. Hours ago, or so it seemed. Verifying that it had, indeed, been quite a while, her stomach rumbled in protest. Ignoring her discomfort, she eyed the sheep. They didn’t do particularly well in deep snow, but she didn’t see any help for that now. She had to get them home or the wargs roving the countryside would pick them off like fat piglets. Maybe me, too. Rhiannon shivered; and not just from the snow insinuating itself through every loose place in her homespun clothing.
With half-frozen fingers, she reached up to pat the goodwife’s amulet buried deep under her clothing and mumble half a prayer. It was the one thing her Ma had left for her, pressing it into Rhiannon’s small hand right before she’d deserted the lot of them. With the vague sadness that always accompanied memories of her mother tugging at her, Rhiannon wondered just how late it was. There’d been so little light all day, it was impossible to tell just how many hours—or minutes—of daylight remained. Taking another step backwards to keep her face out of the worst of the wind, she stumbled into something. Thinking it was a tree stump, she twisted her head to find a clearer path, only to discover she’d run up against one of the sheep. For the briefest of moments, something odd shone from its rectangular pupils. Something red and…malevolent. Then it was gone.
Rhiannon shook her head. “I’m imaginin’ things,” she said, trying to sound as authoritative as she could manage. “They’re only sheep, is all. Just like the ones we got back home. Come on, Reil.” She clucked to the dog. “Can’t be much farther.” She took a few steps in one direction, then decided that was where they’d just come from, so she turned about and began walking, searching the snow for any sign of the road—or her footsteps, in case she’d guessed wrong. But the wind was so pervasive any indentations in the endless white would have filled in practically as soon as they’d been made.
Trying to make out familiar landmarks, she squinted, shielding her eyes with a hand. Trouble was the wind was blowing so hard, she couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. Face screwed into a study in concentration, she thought she recognized a big oak a few feet behind her as one of the ones the Druids had planted to mark the road. Many of them had died, but there were a few of the ancient trees still standing. Thinking if she kept to the left of the tree, she could simply walk in a straight line till she saw the next one, she struck out again.
Her thoughts returned to Jake Donalsson. He’d been a drifter, far as she could tell. It had been pathetically convenient for him to settle in at their little homestead. For the first few years, he’d told her he wanted to marry her; but that talk faded once he’d figured out she wasn’t into handing out samples of wedded bliss. As if any twelve-year-old would want a grown man rooting about on her. Rhiannon snorted. Now that she was closer to twenty, she understood exactly what he’d wanted. And that he liked his girls young. As soon as her body took on curves, he’d transferred his attentions to her two little sisters. She thwarted him by threatening to tell the elders if he laid even a single finger on either of them. Sex with the unwilling was a crime punishable by death in her village.
She sighed. Not that any of that mattered today. Effie was sixteen and Tarin eighteen; both long past the age Jake liked. Strangely, her brother Johannes had forged the closest of bonds with Jake as the two worked side by side planting, harvesting, shearing sheep and keeping the cabin and barns in repair. Drawn out of her thoughts by the cold, Rhiannon took a good, hard look at her surroundings. She should have come to another sentinel tree by now, but she hadn’t. With a sinking heart and unsettling certainty, she knew she was lost. Marker trees or no, they should have been home long since and there was a shred less light than there’d been last time she thought about it.
She stopped walking. “Home, Reil,” she said hopefully, but he just looked at her, wagging his tail. “Ach, you don’t know either.” One of the sheep butted her and she sat down hard in the snow. Reil immediately began barking at the errant sheep, driving it a few feet back. As she scrambled to her feet, Rhiannon stared at the sheep. Was it the same one she’d worried about before? There simply wasn’t a way to tell. They all looked alike with a layer of snow clinging to their thick, wool-covered hides.
Fear clutched at her. If she’d been going the wrong way, or traveling in circles in the storm, there was no telling where they might be. They needed shelter, though, or none of them would survive the night. As she glanced nervously about, she thought she saw something off to her right under a grove of thick evergreens. There were shepherd’s cabins scattered about the countryside. Had she been fortunate enough to happen upon one of them? Even a deserted one would do. Heart pounding wildly, she hurried forward. Behind her, she heard Reil barking at the sheep; and she wondered if one of them had tried to either lie down or stray.
She wrestled her way through the snow. Soon enough the outlines of a small, obviously empty cabin came into view. The roof had fallen in on one corner, but it was shelter and she thought they’d all fit. She wasn’t at all sure she wanted the sheep inside, but leaving them out-of-doors would be a death sentence. Cautiously, she pushed the door inwards, listening to it creak on rusty hinges. It was close to black inside the mud-walled hut, so she stepped away from the door to let what little light she could into the small space. And then she smiled. There were two long candles and two halves; plus some thoughtful soul had piled firewood in one corner next to an old, pot-bellied stove.
“ Reil. In here,” she called, moving further inside as the dog drove the sheep in. She scuttled through her pockets, drawing out her flint. It took a couple of tries, but she got one of the candles lit. A pool of melted wax on a rough table next to the stove made a primitive holder. Pulling the door shut, she latched it with a frayed rope hanging next to the frame.
“ Not bad,” she said, casting her eyes about. A small pile of snow had accumulated in one corner where the roof had failed. She could melt that for water, once she got the stove going. Grateful for something to do while the storm screamed through nearby tree branches, she got out her pocket knife and whittled strips off one of the chunks of wood to make fire starter. Reil herded the sheep into one of the corners. He sat on his haunches watching them. If anyone crossed a line that the dog had apparently drawn in the dirt floor, he barked a warning and the wayward sheep retreated.
It didn’t take long for the little hut to warm nicely. Rhiannon removed her sodden over jacket and hung it on a hook near the stove, hoping it would dry. Droplets from it sizzled when they hit the hot surface of the woodstove. As she explored the interior of her home, preparing to bed down for the night, she found a couple of filthy cast iron pots stuffed into a corner. Clucking over one of them, she let herself back outside to scrub it with a handful of snow.
The storm seemed to be tapering off. At least it wasn’t snowing as hard and the wind, while still shrieking, had abated somewhat. Surely she’d be able to figure out which way home was if she could see the rising sun come morning. A hunger pang bit deep and she hustled back inside. Too bad whoever had left the firewood hadn’t left a bit of flour or cornmeal as well. Or, maybe they had. She hadn’t really looked.
“ You’re not going to starve in a day,” she reminded herself, as she scooped snow into the pot and placed it on the stove. Reil walked in a circle three times scratching at the dirt, then settled in, tucking his nose under his tail.
“ What about the sheep?” she asked him. He thumped his tail softly, put his nose back under it and closed his eyes. Rhiannon grinned crookedly. “Guess you’re off duty, then?” The dog whined softly, but made no move to sit back up. Well, he was old and she supposed he was plenty tired. After all, they’d been walking for hours.
She stared at the sheep. They stared balefully back out of their amber eyes. “Any one of you gets any ideas, I’ll let you have it with this.” She brandished the fire poker. A chorus of baahs met her pronouncement.
Picking up her candle, she examined the rest of the hut finding a tin of moldy cornmeal tucked into the remains of a bedstead. She looked at it, debating. Moldy grains could cause madness, but that was rye did that. This was corn. Hunger got the better of her. She threw the contents of the tin into the water boiling on the stove. Using her knife to stir the mixture as it thickened and bubbled, she took care to cook it long enough to at least try to kill off the mold. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer and she tentatively licked a droplet of the mush off her knife. Her eyes widened in surprise. “But this tastes wonderful,” she murmured, moving the pan to a cooler part of the stove as she stood over it, scooping up the gloppy cornmeal on her knife and blowing on it to cool it a bit.
Pan empty, she tried to decide the best place to lie down to sleep. Her bladder nagged at her, so she let herself outside for long enough to squat in the snow. An almost-full moon was clearly visible through the trees. Maybe because she’d eaten, she felt more hopeful than she had since she’d found the hut.
Just as she was re-tying the door shut, the sound of a single warg howling reached her. An answering howl came from somewhere much closer. Her sanguine feelings scattered like so much dust. Reil whined softly. One of the sheep thrashed about, kicking another who bit her, creating a storm of unhappy baahs .
“ Stop that,” Rhiannon cried out, fearful that sound would draw the wargs. She laughed bitterly. As if they need sound. Smell should do it. She pulled her still-damp coat back around her and hunkered down near the stove. Reil crept close, laying his head in her lap. As she scratched the dog’s ears, she reached out with her other hand and drew the poker close. It was the only weapon she had. Suddenly, the dog’s head reared up. He growled low in the back of his throat. Every sense on edge, Rhiannon bit her lower lip so hard she tasted blood as she tried to remember what she knew about the half-magical wolves that roamed the Cumbrian hills.
The door rattled alarmingly. A man’s voice screeched. “Whoever you are in there. Let me in. ‘Tis not a fit night for a body to be about.”
Reil barked, this time coming to his feet as he faced the door, hackles standing up all along his spine. Another warg howled, sounding even closer.
What should I do? Her thoughts raced. It was obvious the hut was occupied. Simple courtesy to a fellow traveler dictated she open the door; but there was something about the combination of the storm, the wargs, the renegade sheep and Jake’s insistence she leave the safety of her home with a hellacious storm brewing that made the small hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
The door rattled again as the man’s fist banged against it. The rotten rope gave way and the door flew open. “Did your ma not raise you better than that?” the stranger snapped as he heaved himself through the opening, kicking the rickety door shut with what sounded like a stout boot.
She cowered near the stove, poker to hand. Reil had retreated to stand next to her the minute the door opened so abruptly. He was still growling and his ears were back.
“ Can you talk?” The man had done what he could to secure the door and turned back towards her. Another howl from without split the silence between them.
Rhiannon felt frozen in place, heart thudding against her ribcage. She was afraid to actually look at the man; wasn’t sure what she’d see. The door rattled again. The man hurried across the room, wrenching the poker out of her hands. “Must be all you have to fight with’” he muttered, adding, “There’s dark things about, Missy.”
Finally, she raised her eyes to look at him and felt foolish. He really was a very ordinary looking fellow with light brown hair falling in wet strings about his bony face. He was only a bit taller than her; but then she’d always towered over other women. From the modest cut of his clothing, she figured he was either a farmer or herdsman and not a highwayman as she’d feared. Not that she actually knew what the robber barons that roved through the hills and barrows actually looked like. But Jake had plied her with enough tales to convince her he’d been one of them before helping himself to her farm.
Another rattle shook the cabin and the sheep began baahing like mad things. The man spun about. “Och, and I didn’t see them .” He stared fixedly at the sheep. “What on earth were you doing out in such a storm? And leading a flock to boot.” He shook his head. “Never mind. We’ve got worse things to deal with just now.”
“What’s out there?” she finally managed.
“Haints.” He spoke tersely through clenched teeth. “I was trying to get back to Carlis. Got lost in the storm. By the time I reckoned I was walking in circles, it was already dark. ‘Tweren’t for the moon, I’d never have seen this cabin. Once I did, I headed for it.”
Just like me. “That’s odd,” she muttered. “Nearly the same thing happened to me, except it wasn’t quite dark.”
Suddenly he was facing her, hands clasping her shoulders as he forced her to look at him. “And was there food in here for you to eat?” he demanded, a worried line creasing his forehead.
“Y-yes.” She hesitated, feeling as if she’d done something wrong. “But I was really hungry. And I took care to cook it well.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re not from these parts, are you?”
“Oh, but I am.” She felt anger beginning to kindle. “Who are you to talk so to me?”
He ignored her question, plunging ahead as if she’d not said a thing. “Did your ma never tell you tales of the haints in these hills?”
“She’s been gone since I was but five.”
“Well, your da then.”
“He weren’t into tales.”
Another shudder threatened to cave the cabin door right in. Over the caterwauling of the sheep and the dog’s sharp little fear barks, she shouted, “In the name of the goddess, tell me what is going on here?”
“When you ate their food, you raised the haints. They won’t rest till they, too, have eaten.”
“Could we give them one of the sheep?” she ventured.
“What they want is us.” Pain and desolation raked through his voice as he turned soft, brown eyes towards her.
The door, rattling ever more alarmingly, burst from its hinges. Flickering lights hovered just at the edge of the lintel. Hundreds of them. Rhiannon fought an almost overwhelming desire to reach out her hand to them.
“Do not look,” he hissed. “My name is Bran. You must come into my arms. ‘Twill confuse them if we are twined together. Mayhap not for long, but any time is better than naught.”
“But the wargs,” she protested. “The door…’tis open.”
“They cannot pass the haints. Dead is dead and the haints, well they have the stronger magic.”
Confusion raged through her as she stepped into Bran’s embrace. He smelled of the forge—of iron and wood smoke and sweat. As his arms closed about her, he whispered, “They pick off single lives. My grannie told me she once tricked ‘em by doing this.” Drawn by something ineffable, Reil squeezed between their legs. Rhiannon repositioned herself to let the dog in. She felt him trembling where his body touched hers and understood his terror. Opening her eyes, she glanced at the lights. They pulsed in a hypnotic rhythm that seemed to be calling just to her.
“I told you not to look.” Bran’s whispered voice was firm.
Shifting her gaze to the sheep, she saw them huddled together in a far corner of the hut, silent at last and as far away as they could get from the flickering lights.
“That’s better,” he crooned in her ear. “Watch them. Think about the sheep. Think about me. Think about anything alive and breathing. And I will, too.”
She never knew how many hours passed. Her legs felt as if they were about to give out. Bran quivered as he shifted from foot to foot. Even though she tried to stay awake, she dozed in his arms, lulled into insensibility by the lights. Once when she opened her eyes, haints were all around them and Reil was whining from his nest amongst their legs. The second she shifted her attention to the lights, they closed in even closer. Bran shook her hard, saying, “Uh-uh.”
The next time she came to herself, haints were plucking at her hair, sending shivers of delight through her at the same time as horror cascaded down her spine. “Got to stay awake,” she said, her voice muffled against Bran’s chest. “Got to stay awake.”
“Yes,” he answered, but his voice sounded far away. In a distant corner of her mind, she wondered if they should try to talk to one another, but it seemed like too much effort and she discarded the thought almost as soon as it surfaced. Clinging to the knobby woolen of Bran’s jacket, she struggled to keep her eyes open.
Finally, pale gray daylight illuminated the interior of the little hut. Her eyes felt sandpapery and irritated, as if she’d been rubbing at them for a long time. Taking a deep breath, she glanced about, but the lights were gone. “Bran,” she said softly. But he didn’t answer.
When she moved away from him, he sagged against her, then crumpled to the beaten dirt floor near the stove. A sunbeam played through the open door. In its glow, his face looked unnaturally white. Terror blooming anew, she sank to her knees next to him, laying her head on his chest. Please, she begged the goddess. Please, let him be alive.
When she didn’t hear his heart beating, she pressed her lips to his, trying to breathe life back into him. Over and over, she took a breath, blew it into his open mouth, sucked in another and did it again. Reil ran in little circles around them, stopping to lick Bran from time to time.
Tears streaked her face. She heard herself moaning as she struggled against whatever had stolen Bran away during that unnaturally long night. “You cannot have him,” she gasped between breaths. “You cannot. You will not.”
Exhaustion dragged at her. She forced herself to keep on breathing into Bran’s mouth. I ought to stop, she thought. This is energy I’ll need to get myself home.
At the faintest edges of her hearing, something rustled. It was a small sound, really. So small, she wasn’t sure she’d actually heard it. But the next breath she blew into his lungs made him cough. When she looked, color was coming back into his pale face. She saw the rise and fall of his chest without her breathing for him.
Rocking back on her heels, she clucked to Reil. The old, black dog crept into her arms, licking at her tears. “Yes, yes,” she told him. “I’m thinkin’ this will be all right now.”
“L-lady.” Bran’s voice was weak, but clear. His eyes fluttered open and zeroed in on her face. “I’d like to thank you, but I never did know your name.”
“Rhiannon,” she said, smiling down at him as she swiped at her tear-wet face.
“You called me back,” he said, voice filled with wonder. “I was with the haints, in their dark halls, but you sang me back to the other side.”
“I did not know…” she began.
He held up a hand. “It doesn’t matter.” Struggling a bit, he rolled onto his side so he could stand. Once on his feet, he brushed the dirt from his clothes. “I’ll help you get those sheep home.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t ask it of you…” she began, voice trailing off as she thought better of declining his offer. She turned away, feeling suddenly shy. “If you’re sure it wouldn’t be a bother…” She glanced up at him, meeting his eyes. “I’d be most grateful. You see, I got lost, too. Our farm’s not so far from Carlis, only a league or so to the east.”
Understanding it was time to go, Reil began worrying the sheep towards the door. They baahed obligingly as they let the dog herd them.
“Ready?” she asked, pushing herself up from the dirt floor.
He nodded, standing aside to let her leave the hut that had almost been the death of them both. If he wouldn’t have come along, the haints would’ve got me, she thought. If not them, the wargs. “I owe you a debt of thanks, too,” she murmured. He just smiled at her. Once outside, she looked closely at the mud-walled structure. There were odd runes carved above the lintel. She pointed at them, a question in her eyes.
“Yes,” he nodded. “That is how you can tell. But it’s always so dark when you come upon one of these places… Unless you had the presence of mind to light a candle and actually step back outside to look, you’d never see the markings. They have something to do with the haints’ spells.” He hesitated. “I think they use the wargs to drive their victims towards these places. That way, you’re so rattled when you finally get inside, you forget to check for the runes. If Grannie was alive, she’d know far more to tell you.”
He held out a hand to her, gratitude shining from his eyes. After the briefest of hesitations, she took it and they both started talking at once. Rhiannon laughed, then pointed after Reil who seemed to have figured out which way home was.
“Let’s follow him,” she suggested.
They did, heads bent companionably together. “Your grannie sounds like a right interesting woman,” Rhiannon said. “Maybe you could tell me about her.”
“Aye,” he replied, a lighthearted note in his voice. “That she was. You see, she was raised by the witches living in the Druid caves just to the west of where the sun sets…”