Part 1. Runes & Secrets
Beyond Black Rook Mountains there lies a road that stretches for a hundred miles from the dark Croon Forest to the sparkling blue waters of Lake Rafe. Those who remember the times before the Sundering will tell you the road was built by a million slaves. They will tell you how the Grunge whipped and beat their slaves to death, such was their fury and desire for the road to be finished. They needed the road to bring their war machine to the borders of Haven, the only remaining free city. The Grunge were a savage race. Twisted and evil they brought darkness to a world that now wants to forget.
What the elders won’t tell you is why the trees now produce deep red leaves whereas before the road was lined with lush evergreens. The trees that spanned those hundred miles never fell to autumn and never surrendered their leaves to any other colour. Some say there was magic at work, perhaps even sorcery. Other more level-headed thinkers say this is nonsense, trees aren’t magic, they’re simply trees.
Magic is seldom used by everyday people, save for the Druids in the far north, according to rumour anyway. Magic hasn’t been outlawed but merely ignored. No one wants to be part of something responsible for misery and misfortune. The elders are quick to stop loose talk among those with foolish notions of adventure and mystery. And yet the punishment is worth the risk for young hearts when they gather to whisper rumours about magic and heroes that ride from the north.
I was punished once for speaking too loudly about runes I had discovered freshly carved into a tree not far from our farm-house. Old Winder Proos made me collect apples from his orchard all week. It was worth it. But when I went back the runes had been sanded away. Such is the fear of anything resembling magic.
At the end of my gruelling chore I rested my aching feet in a bowl of hot Nether Blossom water on the back steps of our humble home. My Grandfather joined me and in silence we shared an apple. When I asked my him about the history of the old Droga Road he smiled and cut away another slice of the sweet autumn fruit.
“Belora, my girl, you ought to have learnt by now that to tell such a truth would be akin to meddling in witchcraft,” he said. “No sane person would reveal such secrets in full for fear of encouraging the evil that lays dormant beneath the road.”
“Surely no more evil than the Grunge?”
“Hush your tongue, young one.” Grandfather glanced through the window into the kitchen. My parents were busy as usual and hadn’t overheard us. “Have you not the sense of your older brothers? Be kind to yourself and let such ideas fall from your mind.” He paused and chewed on a slice of apple. “But yes, Droga Road was created by death. A restless energy consumed by pain and hate.”
I kept my voice low, eager to keep the flow of history coming for as long I could hold my Grandfather’s attention. “That was a long time ago,” I argued. “Surely even the ghosts of the slaves are at peace by now.”
“Evil as deep-rooted as that will never be at peace, young one, it merely sleeps.”
“That means something could awaken it.”
“Mayhap one day, when one foolhardy trouble seeker pokes into the wrong place.”
“What then? Would someone come and fight the evil? Surely if evil sleeps then good does likewise.”
Grandfather spat out a pip and wiped a hand across his beard. “Heroes come and go, Bel. I fear one day long after your own Grandchildren are dead and buried, the world will have forgotten what a hero is for. Always there have been guardians of light against the darkness but the Sundering left the world bereft of magnificence and honour.”
I loved to hear my Grandfather talk. His words somehow reminded me of a world I never knew yet felt so connected to. I had three brothers, all of whom never showed the slightest interest in history. They worked hard on our farm and protected our home from bandits. My parents disapproved of my endless questions, always shooing me away or barking chores so I wouldn’t have time to ask them anything. I couldn’t help but wonder. Aside from my Grandfather I had no one to share my thoughts with.
“Grandfather, do you ever worry that the evil everyone thinks is banished is coming back?”
“I worry about many things, Bel. About the harvest. About the long winter ahead. Will we make enough money to hire plenty of hands to guard our stores against the bandits? Your parents are strong and resourceful but like so many in our small town they look to me for guidance. How many winters do I have left in me? Many worries cross my mind, young one.”
I took that as a yes. “And if it does come back, what then?”
“Too young you are to have worries of your own, Bel, let alone deep dark ones as those you carry around with you.”
“Someone has to worry.”
Grandfather winked at me. “Mayhap.”
“Who do you talk with? Surely you don’t talk to yourself.”
“I certainly do not.” Grandfather tossed the apple core over the landing. “Such dark deeds do not warrant discussion when others are around. You ought be mindful of your tongue. Folk only have so many apples and onions and cabbages that need harvesting.”
“What happens when they run out of chores?”
Grandfather sighed. “Our family is well-respected, you must know this. For all your folly and mischief you have a keen eye. But even respect may not quell tempers when folk find their patience fails them. I see some of your friends have been sent away in recent times.”
“To Tovelock Garrison.” I didn’t need reminding about that. “They never come back either. That isn’t right.”
“Such are the limits of patience,” Grandfather said.
“It’s just words,” I said with a shrug. “What harm can words do?”
Grandfather shot me a look of anger. “Words can do much damage. You heed me well, young one. Words frighten folk who remember. They frighten those who have been told by those who remember. History is scary.”
“It is full of misery.”
“Not all of it.” I stared out across the paddock. “If it were then why would anyone bother fighting evil?”
“They fought to protect those whom they loved.”
I turned to face my Grandfather. “I saw strange runes carved into a tree last week.”
There. I’d said it. The thing that had been eating at me since Winder Proos caught me telling my best friend Jip. I couldn’t hold it back any longer. Someone had to know and my Grandfather was the only I trusted not to punish me for saying it out loud.
Grandfather watched me for a long time. Inside I could hear my parents setting out the table for our evening meal. Any moment we would be called inside and I needed to hear a reply to my worry.
“Do you remember what they looked like?”
I nodded. “Yes. Clearly.”
Grandfather nodded and smoothed a hand down his beard. He gestured for me to help him out of his chair. When he was upright and leaning on his staff he stared into my eyes.
“We will speak more of these runes.” His eyes switched to the window. “But not here. It is too dangerous.”
“When? Where?” I asked.
“Tomorrow is Midsummer Eve. Townsfolk will be at the celebrations. We will meet in a secret place known by few whom I trust.”
“There are others who talk of…these things?”
Grandfather gave me a wink. “Yes. Keep it secret, Bel. Can you do that for me?”
Grandfather patted me on the shoulder. “Good. We will talk more of this tomorrow.”
He went to move but I held his hand. “What does this mean?”
“I don’t know, Bel,” he said with deep sigh. “But mayhap it is likely evil will return before either one of us is dead and buried, let alone your Grandchildren.”
To be continued…
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write between 50 and 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 5 photos as a prompt. This weeks prompt was entitled “Autumnal” and whilst the photo prompts depicted scenes of autumn, I saw a very clear story that wasn’t directly connected with the seasons, at least not yet.
Since I’m drawing to a close with Arcane Insane I was thinking about another series to start, maybe this is the one to kick-start it. I’m not sure how much I’ll get done before NaNoWriMo starts on November 1st so we’ll just have to wait and see. If you’re thinking of taking part in the National Novel Writers Month I urge you to connect with #NaNoTeamIndy on Twitter – the NaNo hang out started by Indigo where you’ll find plenty of support and frolics aplenty throughout the month!
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.