Dag sat in a feasting hall, but by the sight and sound of those around him, it would be easy to believe the great space had been cleared for the aftermath of battle to tend to the wounded.
Faces stared back with patched eyes or sunken pits where the orb had been plucked out long ago. Flat, broken noses. Cauliflower ears. Scars warped the skin. Hands missing digits. Arms missing hands. Bodies missing limbs. Those who had a body still intact sat bowed, frail and weak, like Dag’s own.
He’d never recovered from the breathing sickness which had struck home nearly seven years ago. Now he could only sip the repressive air through the scarf covering his nose and mouth. A bundle of thyme had been sewn into a loose pocket of the material to suppress the coughing fits which plagued him.
Fat candles and a central hearth filled the room with smoke and he deliberately heaved himself upright and took a seat nearer the doorway. Loosening the scarf he drank the air deeply, but the coolness of it touched his lungs and he coughed until red in the face. Yanking the scarf back across his mouth he pulled in the scent of thyme until the coughing ceased. Eyes streaming, his forehead lowered to the table, and something crossed between a laugh and a sob escaped through the rasping breaths.
Dag had seen thirty-four summers. He was a man in his prime, but his body felt like that of a man who had reached his centenary.
Over the chatter, he heard coughs, moans, and whimpering. Rolling his head, he turned his attention to the faces once more. They were old and young, men and women. All pinning their hope on the Clan of Sefesk’s call.
Dag had been hunched over, whittling tree nails to fix keel to stern of the fishing boats in Stofen’s small harbour when he heard it.
‘To the old! To the cripples! The ones scarred by war and sickness. The Clan of Sefesk would take your oaths and in return, they will give you a second chance at a life lost!’
Dag’s gaze left his work. Pulling a hand through his long hair, he took in the man who had clambered a stack of boxes ready to be loaded onboard. The messenger looked to be about twenty-eight and full of all the life and vigour Dag so desperately yearned for.
The words piqued the interest of the crowd. Clan leaders rallying warriors with the empty promise of land and gold was a common occurrence. One rallying the sick and crippled was not.
The messenger said little more, but on the following morning, the vessel upon which he sailed was crammed full of those who would weather the journey on the hope of another chance, and Dag was one of them.
Voices muttered what was about to be unveiled. Four figures were seated at the table upon the dais. Haaken Sefesk’s chair denoted his rank as Chief. It had not always been so. To his right sat Helena, his elder sister. She had held the title of Chief until a riding accident had left her, like many of those seated below, a cripple. Songs told of her prowess in the saddle who streaked across the landscape like the light rivers which blazoned the night sky.
To Haaken’s left sat his twin brother, Landon. There was a similarity to their faces in the jawline, but it stopped there. While Haaken spoke animatedly to his sister, Landon looked as if the cider he’d just swallowed was too sour. He held hands with his wife, Medansa. A beauty with milk-white skin enrobed in black wool.
‘I hear she can speak to beasts,’ an old man at the table spoke in a gruff voice, his head nodding at Helena.
‘I heard Haaken can speak to the dead,’ the man next to him added. His arm was missing below the elbow.
‘What about Landon?’
‘I doubt the Gods even know. Whatever it is, I wouldn’t mind some of it if it means I can plough women like her!’ The two men laughed until Dag interrupted them.
‘If you or any of us were Touched like them, we’d be gutted like a fish and hanging by a rope.’
The one-armed man scowled and Dag debated moving to another table when a voice cried for silence and the noise settled like dust until only the moaning wind and the crackle of the fire could be heard.
‘Thank you for joining my brothers and I,’ Helena spoke. ‘The moon is black tonight, which means the Weaver is blind and deaf to my words. There is a hollow in her chest where her heart should reside.’
Dag heard the gasps from the crowd. To speak of the Weaver in such a way, even when she was sightless, was an ill omen.
‘When she spun my thread, she saw it fit to cut the thread of my daughter’s in her first hour of life. She saw fit to ensure I would never bear another. She cajoled Sepula, the God of the sea to pull my husband into his murky depths. Then, she took the use of my legs.’ Rage aged her face and her hands articulated with a restlessness which could not be contained.
‘I adhered to our ways. I prayed to the Gods and I gave sacrifices in hope it would appease them but I am but an amusement in their eyes. I tire of the fate the Weaver has given me. Tonight, with the help of my brother, I will change it.’
Haaken stood, his body holding a nervous tension which hadn’t been there earlier. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked.
‘Always so hasty,’ she chided. ‘I told my tale. I would like to hear the tales of those who came to us.’ Helena’s steel gaze lifted, searching the sea of faces below but no one spoke aloud. ‘You!’ To Dag’s horror, she pointed to him. ‘What brought you here?’
Wheezing, he took an inhalation of thyme and pulled down his scarf.
‘My Lady,’ he said, pulling himself to standing. ‘My name is Dag Seerson of Witchglade, on the Isle of Stofen. I am… a man only fit for mending broken fishing nets and whittling wood. Before I had been Chief Ida Stofen’s house warrior and unofficially-‘ he smirked and wheezed, ‘-his bard. I can barely talk, let alone sing,’ he croaked, shaking his head.
‘What happened to you, Dag Seerson of Witchglade?’
‘A sickness which robs the air from your lungs plagued our small island. It killed a third of the population. Those who survived the sickness wished they’d died too.’
‘Yet the burden you bear is not all from your sickness.’
A trick of the candlelight against her features and Dag’s eyes misting with tears made Helena look like the drawings of woodland guardians with their long limbs and glowing, pale skin.
‘There was a wild woman.’ His voice was thick. This tale deserved a voice better than his own but grief had reared her ugly head and stabbed him deep in the heart once again. ‘She wore the soft greens of the meadow. Eyes like the blue lakes and hair the colour of our rich, fertile soil. She couldn’t be tamed. Every man on Stofen wanted her. Ida’s son wanted her, but she wouldn’t be tamed so easily. Her name was Fawn and like a deer, she allowed Ida’s son to chase her on a merry trail day after day, night after night.
‘How do you tame a maiden, so wild and free? I lay awake, trying to find the answer until one night, it came to me. I ventured into the woods. I found her den while she outran the men who chased her. Exhausted, she returned home to find me. I never left her den and she became my woman.’ Dag smiled, but his face was wet with tears. ‘Yet-‘ his voice broke.
‘The sickness claimed her?’ Helena asked in a quiet voice.
Dag nodded, shoulder shaking and he sniffed and wiped his streaming eyes. ‘The sickness struck me first. I woke on the Full Moon to unfamiliar faces. I clambered from my sickbed to find my family. Four beds and a cradle occupied in body, but no longer in spirit. My wife, my infant daughter and three sons had all died that day, and were to be burnt on the pyres that night.’
‘I am sorry for your losses.’ Helena’s voice remained level but Dag sensed the sincerity there. ‘The Weaver is cruel, don’t you agree?’
Dag nodded, unable to do anything else. A sob turned into a coughing fit and he gasped for air.
‘Sit down. Get Dag Seerson a drink,’ she commanded, and the one-armed man ushered him back into his seat. He took a drink but resumed his quiet sobbing as Helena continued to reach out to the crowd, asking for their stories which were as personal and as tragic as his own. The atmosphere in the great hall grew oppressive with each telling, brewing like an impending storm.
‘I have heard enough. Brother, I am ready.’ Dag noticed Helena’s strong voice quivered and her eyes looked up to Haaken who stood beside her chair with fear.
‘Swear fealty to me, sweet sister,’ Haaken said, curling a stray hair behind her ear. ‘Swear, and I will give you a second chance.’
Helena’s face softened at her brother’s touch. ‘I swear fealty to you. In my body. My mind. My spirit. They are tied to the fate of yours.’
‘Do not fear the darkness. You will soon see the light.’ Haaken bowed, kissing the crown of her head. One hand tender against her cheek while the other rose high, dagger in hand, and he plunged it deep into her chest.
Panicked cries and gasps broke out across the feasting hall. Dag blinked back his tears, watching Haaken comfort his sister in this sororicidal moment, while Landon spoke quietly to his wife with little interest in the horror happening next to him.
Helena’s once animated form slumped and Haaken withdrew the blade, his strained face difficult to read, and he roared at the pandemonium erupting from the crowd.
‘Silence! Bring her in!’ This he directed to his own house warriors and two men dragged a ragged, raven-haired young woman passed the full tables of the perplexed crowd and stopped at the dais. Haaken vaulted the table and stood level with the woman, who squirmed in her captives grip.
She cried at the crowd for aid, but when she saw Helena’s body slumped in the chair she screamed like a banshee.
‘What are you doing?’ A voice rose from the crowd and a chorus of similar questions rang out.
Landon’s fist banged the table, startling his wife as he stood. ‘She is of the clan of Fost! Her uncle murdered my nephews and sister in law. Her fate will be the same as the rest of her family.’
The angry crowd jeered back and Dag threw his own anger at the two brothers amongst the raised voices. ‘How could you murder her? After she listened to our woes!’ His voice broke into another coughing fit and when he regained his composure, he saw Haaken had his eyes fixed with the young woman, and both hands clamped either side of her head so she couldn’t look away. She squirmed then went limp and her head lulled when Haaken released his grip.
The woman’s gaze rose moments later, but from this position, Dag only saw Haaken’s harsh expression open and he looked at the woman with an intent tenderness. Tight lips wrenched free into a wide smile, which broke into a laugh.
Haaken’s guard released the raven-haired woman, but she did not flee. She spun around and, lifting her skirts to her knee, began kicking her feet to an unheard beat. Her spins quickened, and her laugh bubbled with an infectious melody Dag had not heard since his children were alive. It filled the smokey thatched rafters while every other voice silenced and eyes stared.
‘Oh, this is wonderful! Wonderful!’ The woman cried, pulling Haaken into her merry jig. ‘I can dance! I can-‘
She stopped and uttered a sharp intake of breath. Her gaze fixed on Helena’s corpse and Haaken wrapped an arm around her.
‘No,’ the girl pushed from his grasp. ‘Let me see.’ Her lithe form jumped and crouched on the table, brushing away a stray hair from Helena’s face. ‘So frail. I didn’t realise…’
Dag had seen enough. ‘You dare insult the Lady Sefesk while her spirit still lingers to hear it!’ With an energy he never thought he could conjure, he rose from his seat and strode to the dais. Haaken stepped forward to intervene but the woman backflipped from the table and spun to meet Dag first.
‘Indeed it does, Dag Seerson of Witchglade, on the Isle of Stofen. In me!’
Dag took a step back, opened mouthed and when he did try to speak it came out as a wheeze. ‘What?’ he managed.
‘My second chance of a life lost!’ She raised her voice and gaze to the crowd. ‘This is what we can offer you if you bend the knee.’
Dag heard the disbelief from the crowd. Cries of lies and trickery grew and the raven-haired woman screamed fury.
‘Dag Seerson is here because a sickness took the air from his lungs and the strength from his body.’ She stalked forward, and Dag stepped away, the backs of his knees hitting a stool and he tumbled to the floor. ‘He whittles wood and mends nets because that is the sum of his worth!’ She leant over, and those smouldering eyes burned bright and beautiful in her anger. ‘Gone are the days of singing for his lord and wielding a sword to protect him or his family. Dead by the same sickness. A wife, the Fawn. Three sons and an infant daughter.’
His eyes widened. ‘How?’
‘Because you told me. As I told you my tale. All of you!’
Dag’s brow furrowed as this woman recounted every single tale Helena had plucked from the crowd moments before she’d died. They still called trickery but with each telling their assurance dampened until the hall fell silent.
‘What about the woman?’ Dag gasped.
She frowned. ‘What woman?’
‘The one-‘ he gestured to her.
‘Who cares,’ she laughed. ‘She was destined to die. Now she has a use. So, Dag Seerson, will you swear fealty to my brother? Will you revoke that broken body of yours? Will you take another and with it serve our clan?’
Dag could only stammer. His mind couldn’t comprehend her words.
‘People!’ Is was Haaken who spoke. ‘I am tired of the fighting between our clans. I lost my own family to it and during the last five years, I’ve tried to restore a semblance of peace. I want to give you more!’ He pointed out of the doorway, east. ‘I will give you the Heartland! Calonia! They are weak. Without a king. Broken by civil war and plague. Swear fealty to me and I will give you a second chance.
‘Others will no longer see us as a backward culture amongst these scattered isles. We will be the Hebendark of Calonia and the Isles. We will prosper and our time will become our history’s turning point.’ Haaken’s feverish face glanced at Dag and he held out a hand. ‘Will you be my bard? Sing songs of our glory which will still be sung a hundred generations from now?’
Dag took Haaken’s hand and pulled himself to standing. ‘This is madness.’
Haaken laughed. ‘I can offer you another life. Hah! I offer you immortality through song. All you must do is swear loyalty to me.’
Dag tried to find trickery in those blue eyes but found none. The raven-haired woman smiled and her countenance rested in a way so similar to Helena’s he realised then it was her. Her spirit resided in the body of this traitor.
He weighed his options. Swear to Haaken and he would suffer the fate Helena had. A stab through the heart. Death, with a possibility of rebirth. But death, that was enough for Dag. He yearned for his perished family, but taking his own life would mean an eternity of torture by the hands of the Fury’s. Suicide wouldn’t bring his spirit to his family, but Haaken could.
‘I will be your bard, and you will have my sword. If you will have me?’
‘I do!’ Haaken embraced him. ‘I’ll have you all!’
Dag was the first but he wasn’t the last. All those who told their tales to Helena came forward and, like sheep, the others followed. He’d thought only a few hundred had come but when Dag emerged from the hall he saw thousands huddled around the flickering campfires.
Dawn was a silver sword blade above the stone grey sea. His last sunrise and he watched the shadows flee as the warm rays cast a pinkish glow upon the peaks. Helena, in her new found form, wandered over, barefoot. Her feet flexed against the uneven ground beneath, savouring a sensation taken from her long ago.
‘What will become of me— I mean, my body?’
She shrugged. ‘The pyre, but I expect we will run out of wood quite quickly. I think most will be carted to the hot pools. They can take the flesh from bone in mere moments.’
He let her words sink in but Dag felt oddly removed from it all. He would be dead. It didn’t matter. ‘I—‘ His fingers went to a leather bracelet, the knot tied so long ago, it wouldn’t yield and he cursed.
‘Allow me,’ Helena’s slender fingers had more luck, and she inspected the weave, which had always put Dag in mind of snake scales, and handed it back to him.
‘If I— when I return, I would very much like for you to keep it for me until then.’ The colour began to rise in Dag’s cheeks. ‘A gift my wife made for me. I dare not cast it to the flame if there is a chance I will return.’
‘You will,’ she smiled. ‘I will keep hold of it until then. You were the first to swear. Therefore, you will be the first—‘
‘No,’ her smile grew wide and infectious. ‘To be reborn!’
She guided him through the throng of people who parted to reveal Haaken, looking out to the open sea. Unlit beacons lined the cliff but Dag realised they were pyres, awaiting the dead and the flame.
Haaken turned, and Dag saw the dagger loosely held in his hand. ‘Do you swear fealty, Dag Seerson?’
‘I swear fealty to you. In my body. My mind. My spirit. They are tied to the fate of yours.’
Standing, Dag tensed his body, waiting for the blade. Haaken moved fast, driving it deep into his chest and both men knelt on the ground. Dag kept his eyes locked on Haaken’s while his body screamed in alarm.
‘We will meet again, Dag Seerson. When you wake, find me.’
Haaken withdrew the blade and Dag slumped face first in the dirt. A peculiar warmth ran across his body.
Blood? No, the sun.
He saw his final sunrise in a moment of pure bright intensity and, just as suddenly, darkness followed. Dag Seerson, of Witchglade was dead.