This is intended as a place for my previously published work that (for whatever reason) is no longer available at its original home. Don’t worry: the rights have reverted.
Story #1: A Breath Through Silver
Originally Published: Swords and Sorcery Magazine
I threw down my cards. “I win again, sir.”
My opponent bit his lip; his eyes darted towards the door. Fat chance, fat man. The Bouncer here tossed welchers back in head-first. My merchant friend was not escaping.
My smile turned to broad grin. “We made it double or nothing.”
He shrugged. “We did.”
“Be a good fellow and empty your pockets.”
“You beggar me.”
He unloaded a pile of coppers and junk onto the table. I evaluated the coinage. Unclipped: very nice. I wasn’t interested in letters of credit: too many ways to shaft a man who can’t read. But something else caught my eye. A small, hollow tube, with holes drilled into the side. A musical pipe. I held it up to the light. Silver.
The merchant scratched his chin. “Something I picked up on the way here. It’s broken. Doesn’t play a note, not even for dogs.”
I set the pipe to my lips, and blew. Nothing.
The merchant smirked. “See?”
I blew again, harder, and tried fingerings. Still nothing… then I heard a cry of anguish, and a clatter of boot heels on wood. I spun around, and saw a slender bearded creature dancing maniacally atop the neighbouring table. With its all-blue eyes, devoid of whites or pupils, this was no human. It was a huldo, one of Them. I’d seen huldo before–courtesy of my father’s interests–but generally They keep to Themselves. Both races prefer it that way.
The creature struggled to stop its feet and arms; panic spread across its ageless face. I burst into laughter. But no sooner had I ceased blowing than the huldo stopped dancing. For a moment, it glared at me with those inhuman eyes.
Then it vanished.
“Well.” I turned back to the merchant, flicking the instrument between thumb and forefinger. “I got more than I bargained for. I’ll keep this.”
The other man had grown pale. He shook his head. “No. Take all my coin…”
I grinned. “That was the plan.”
“Leave the pipe with me,” he hissed. “You do not know these things.”
I swept his money into my purse, and rose to my feet. “I’m the son of the town Shaman. I think I do.”
His mouth hung open, and his hands gestured wildly, as though some piper controlled him too. I mock-bowed, blond hair curtaining my eyes.
“Better luck next time, sir.”
I pushed back through the common room, and went to collect my gear. Removing my coat from the hook, I saw I’d caught the barkeep’s attention.
Dishcloth in hand, Old Anders waved me over. “What was that, Manfred?”
I shrugged. “Just a card game.”
“The dancing huldo?”
Old Anders scowled. “Yes, I suppose it does. Listen. Your father had a chat with me recently. He’s unhappy with you spending so much time here.”
“I’m a grown man. I can spend my time–and others’ money–as I please. So what if I passed out on the floor last night? Your fireside is the warmest in Lillivert.”
“One day you’ll become town Shaman. You don’t learn songs of lore sitting in my tavern, drinking, gambling, and wenching. By the ancestors, what kind of Shaman can’t even read?!”
“Not my fault, as you well know,” I said. “As for my other pursuits, my father still has many years left. What’s youth for if not to enjoy yourself?”
Old Anders’ scowl deepened. He’d never had a youth; he’d just been less old. Even his wife had only married him for money. The townspeople gossiped that Young Anders was another man’s get.
“Manfred, at this rate, a youth is all you’ll have. You make enemies.”
I glanced back at the table. Red-faced and sweating, the merchant sat in animated conversation with a couple of others. Rough sorts, with scars on the cheeks.
I flicked my knife into the air, and caught it. “I’ll back myself over anyone. Or anything.”
Old Anders shook his head. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
He resumed wiping the bar.
I strode home in the coat I’d won six months earlier. Taking the garment from the drunkard soldier had been easy; I hadn’t even needed to cheat. But today late-autumn snows had come early to Lillivert, and icy winds raced down from the western hills, keen and sharp enough to shave with. Today, clad from neck to ankles in thick rabbit fur, I thanked the shades of my ancestors for that coat.
I mulled my latest acquisition. According to legend, a huldo granted reward if you cornered it. How to capture the creature while still playing the instrument… I paused opposite the blacksmith’s forge, and drew out the pipe. Small and silver, it gleamed in my gloved hand.
The streets of Lillivert lay deserted. Even Snorri the Smith had shut his shop for the day. I wondered if the merchant had spoken truly, if I ought to have left the pipe with him. No, of course not. Besides, I can always ask my father, the man who knows everything. I idly put the pipe to my lips. Were any huldo lurking?
Not near blacksmith’s iron. I returned the pipe to my pocket.
My grandparents built this house from timber they’d cut and dragged from Lillivert Forest. As a child, its two rooms were my world: one to sleep in, the other for food and play. As a man I lived there still, and one day I would inherit it, along with the Shamanship. Such was the law.
That evening, the front door stood ajar. Odd: my father thought autumnal draughts bad for his joints. I shook my head. The wind must have blown the door open while he napped. Still, if he were asleep, it delayed another warning about spending the night with loose women. Not a woman last night, father. Just ale. Cheaper, but more pain in the morning. Then I peered inside, and my jaw dropped.
The table lay overturned, all three chairs broken. Ancient parchments, collected over years, had been knocked from the shelves and now littered the floor.
“Father!” I shouted. There was no answer.
Knife in hand, I searched the bedroom. No blood, or even evidence of struggle, just wanton destruction. Curiously, the family’s ancestral longsword–which had slain a great serpent in its day—still stood in the corner, untouched.
I returned to the front door, and stood, scratching my head. What had happened? If only I had been home last night. Then I looked closer at the door. Someone had carved runes into the wood.
“He is gone,” said a musical voice. I sprang around, ready to plunge my blade into the attacker.
A huldo. Just like the one I’d seen in Old Anders’ tavern.
“What have you done with him?” I snapped. “Quickly, before I lodge this knife in your gullet. It’s iron, so it’ll hurt.”
The huldo blinked its pupil-less eyes. “They left a message.”
I frowned. “Who? What message?”
The huldo glided past me, and ran a long-fingered hand over the door. The runes glowed with an unearthly light. I shivered, and not from cold.
“If any should wish the return of Olomo the Shaman, know that the black huldo have him,” read the huldo. “They will trade him for the Arrow of Time. It is close.”
“By the ancestors, what is the Arrow of Time?” I shouted. “Who are…”
“The black huldo.” A note of fear entered its voice. “Our dark kin have returned.”
The huldo vanished.
There was nothing for it: I had to go after Them. Stuffing strips of salted horse-meat and a flask of Lillivert fire-wine–also untouched–into a leather bag, I considered the sword. I’d held it several times, but my father never let me train with it. I must prove myself, apparently. Well, worthy or not, I needed the blade now. So I took it.
There was just one thing left. The Madman of the Hills.
Kustata the Hermit, Kustata the Mad, Kustata the Hunter. He was all that, and more. He’d lived amid the western hills as long as anyone could remember, and rarely ventured into Lillivert, preferring to stalk elk and scavenge fire-berries. The man was the best tracker alive, and according to my father, still clung to folk-wisdom everyone else had forgotten. If anyone could help me find these black huldo, he could.
The Sun was setting, pale and feeble, as I trudged up the winding path. I knew where Kustata’s shack lay; my father had even taken me there once, when I was a boy. Still, the wind, and the cold, and the snow flurries, made it difficult. I must keep moving, I told myself, or it would be all the worse.
I was being followed too.
They’d trailed me since I left town, a steady pursuit that lurked behind boulders and lone pines. They weren’t gaining, but neither could I shake them. Looking down from a ridge, I counted four, cloaked in grey. One thing consoled me: these were mortal bandits, not huldo. I grimaced, and licked my wind-cracked lips. Let them try and take me: I had sword and knife, and skill with both.
Then something hissed past my ear–not from below, but from the rocks above. Cursing, I dived behind the nearest boulder. Just in time, as a crossbow quarrel thudded into the dirt to my left. Knowing I couldn’t touch that one, I sank to the ground, and wormed around to view my other pursuers. One lagged far behind, but the other three were rushing up the slope: they’d seen me hide. My heart hammered, but I felt no panic, only thrill. This was the moment of truth, and if my father were right, the shades of my ancestors were watching. Myself, I’d have better things to do in the afterlife than watching a distant descendant, but I resolved to put on a show.
The first one had a familiar, scarred face.
“My merchant friend does not take no for an answer.” I muttered. I weighed my knife in my off-hand. Closer, closer… when the rogue came within range, I darted up, and let fly with a flick of the wrist. The trick with knives is to not try too hard, and I made no mistake today. A six-inch blade in the eye left the bandit screaming like a wounded boar. Blood streamed down his face.
The next two wielded clubs with nails protruding from the ends. I didn’t recognise either man, but at least I knew who paid their wages. Clearly, the merchant considered the silver pipe a great prize.
One of them aimed a blow at my head. I ducked under the swing, and rammed my sword into his unprotected belly. A painful way to go, or so I’m told. But before I could withdraw my blade, the man stumbled, pulling the sword from my hand. I instinctively ducked again, avoiding the other man’s swing by mere inches. I was without weapons now, with at least two bandits left to fight before I could even think about that bloody crossbow.
Cursing loudly, I threw myself forward, out the way of another blow. The first bandit’s body lay within reach, blood still pooling from the pierced eye. Somehow I evaded my attacker for long enough to rush across and regain my knife. As I spun around, a club clipped my head, just above the ear, and time skipped a beat. There was blood too, I knew, and my mind grew groggy with pain, but I still found it in me to lash out with the knife.
Fortune smiled. The blade caught the club-wielding bandit under the chin, and left him choking on his own blood. As for me, my head was still spinning. Slapping a hand over the wound, I stumbled back, and lay blinking at the darkening clouds.
Next I knew, I felt a sword at my throat. The fourth man stood over me, hooded and cloaked.
“Make it quick, you bastard,” I muttered.
But the bandit only laughed. He pulled back the hood.
“You came yourself?” I spat.
The merchant shrugged. “If you want a job done properly, do it yourself, and I couldn’t trust my friends with my prize. I watched you fight on the way up. I swear, in another time or place, I’d have hired you as a bodyguard. Not that I strictly need one, but I like to lower people’s expectations.”
“You want the pipe.”
“You have no idea what danger it represents. I’ll have to kill you, but it’s for your own good. Consider it double or nothing.”
I heard a thud, and then choking. The merchant staggered back. I sat up, in time to see a second crossbow quarrel hit him square in the mouth. He collapsed to the ground with a grunt.
I climbed to my feet. I was in no state to fight the crossbowman, but he had saved me from death–perhaps I wouldn’t need to. At least my head had stopped bleeding.
“You can come out, sir,” I called. “Or kill me, if that is your wish.”
“If it were my wish,” growled a voice like sandpaper, “I wouldn’t waste quarrels. I’d leave you here and let Them have you.”
I turned slowly. A wiry, weather-beaten man in furs pointed a crossbow at my heart. With that unkempt hair, and that beard as white as winter snow, it could only be Kustata.
The madman led me to his home. My mind was clearer now, and I had a thousand questions on my tongue, but all I got from him were grunts and “it’s getting dark.”
The shack looked smaller than I remembered: a squat, ugly thing, more stable than house. An overhanging cliff and a grove of pines kept it protected and hidden. Once inside, Kustata lit a lantern, and pointed me to a raised plank used for seating. Then he checked my head wound.
“It’s a scratch,” he muttered. “I’ll find you a cloth to clean it. You’ll want dinner too?”
“If it’s not too much.”
Kustata nodded. “Rabbit broth is what you’ll get.” He eyed a cauldron in the corner.
My wound attended to, I drank the broth straight from the bowl. Cold and thin though it was, I devoured it, famished from the fight. Kustata did not eat, but sat on the floor watching me. He did not blink once.
I wiped my mouth with my coat sleeve. “I need your help,” I said, putting down the empty bowl.
“You’ve had my help.”
“Thank you for the broth and shelter, but…”
“My quarrels warned you what a fool you were for coming here.”
This was too much. “Those quarrels could’ve killed me!”
“But they didn’t,” said Kustata. “I’d have killed you had I wanted.”
He pointed a thumb. “Every evening, I wander down the path, lest some fool decides to visit the hills. If I see one, I make warning shots. So it was tonight, before I saw you were fleeing pursuit. I aided you there too: I’ve little time for mismatched fights.”
I decided to strike at the heart of things. “What do you know of the black huldo?”
“Enough to stay away from Them.”
“They’ve taken my father.”
“Be thankful They haven’t taken you.”
“My father is Olomo the Shaman. You knew him, and me. I’m Manfred.”
For the first time, that wrinkled face registered surprise. “Olomo…” He frowned. “You can’t be Manfred. He’s a little boy.”
I held out my fire-wine. “I grew.”
“A little boy.” Kustata took the flask, unsmiling. “Tell me, little Manfred. Tell me everything.”
I told him most of it. I didn’t tell him about the silver pipe; after my run-in with the merchant, the fewer people who knew I owned it, the better. Kustata listened in silence, taking the occasional swig of fire-wine. When I had finished, he drew a deep breath.
“I don’t know about this Arrow of Time,” Kustata said, slowly. “I do know black huldo.” He paused, as if lost in thought. “They’re cursed.”
“Cursed?” I spluttered. “When? Who?”
“Ask Them yourself. But, yes, cursed. Tied to this plane, unable to go invisible or walk above ground in daylight: the Sun turns Them to stone. Normal huldo hunted the creatures centuries ago, till the black huldo passed out of legend. But They weren’t gone. Blended in, biding Their time. Waiting and watching. Ever been out at night, and felt eyes on you? Bet your best boots it’s a black huldo. Now They’re back. More powerful. These hills aren’t safe after sunset anymore. There’s even a place They perform ceremonies…” He shuddered.
I leant forward. “This place. Would my father be there?”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“Can you take me? Now, before the Sun drives Them back underground?”
“You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you, pretty boy?”
I leapt to my feet, refreshed by food, rest, and mockery. “I’ve heard you, Kustata. But I’m not here for stories, I’m here for a rescue.” I patted my sword. “I mean to find my father, or die trying.”
The madman cackled. “Some men would rather be cowards than fools. Others, it’s the other way around. I think I know which you are, little Manfred.” He grinned, his teeth yellow and cracked. “I’ll show you the place. On your head be it.”
The clouds had parted, letting in the cold light of an autumn moon. My hand hovered near my sword-hilt; I imagined black huldo behind every rock. Kustata led me south and around, keeping always to the shadows of trees, or otherwise crawling through bushes, braving thorns without murmur. Snow drifts he shunned.
The wilds are strange at night. Quiet, for there are no men about, yet never silent, because the things that fear men have their own domain. I heard the flutter of wings, the scratching and scurrying of lurking vermin, the rustle of grasses. A breeze caressed my cheeks with chill fingers. But I neither heard nor saw sign of the black huldo. I was both frustrated and relieved.
At last, Kustata held up his palm to halt. We stood beneath an upwards slope. Bereft of bushes, it was home to little save grass; grey beneath the Moon, the stalks waved gently in the wind. My guide turned and looked at me. Do you wish to go on, his face said without words. I nodded. We sank to our knees, and crawled up the slope, inch by silent inch.
The top overlooked a small cliff of some nine feet; from here, one could gaze out at the moonlit hills. But something closer drew my attention as I peered through the grass: barely twenty feet from the bottom of the cliff lay a dell, ringed by dead trees. There burned a mighty bonfire, if burned is the word, for even from here, I knew those dancing blue and white flames gave no heat. Rather, they sucked the warmth from the air itself, until earth and branch alike froze beneath their flickering spell. I shivered in my furs. Half a dozen figures paraded around this cold fire, inhumanly graceful, clad in silver chains, and each chanting in the musical tongue of a lost age.
The black huldo.
Much like Their surface kin, They looked slender and bearded, not quite man-high. But even in the strange fire-glow, I saw the skin was paler, and the hair darker. If the black huldo held my father here, I could not see it. Heart sinking, and fighting every moment against the unnatural cold, all I could do was watch.
I don’t know how long Kustata and I lay there, but it felt hours. The madman didn’t move a muscle. Then, just as I was wondering when the Sun was going to rise, I heard a human voice. I winced at its ugliness: when you’ve been listening to Them, mortal voices are as barnyard screeches and grunts. Moments later, not one but two humans came into view. I rubbed my eyes and peered closer: I knew them both.
“I’ve brought him,” said the younger one. Big, curly haired, and warty, I’d have recognised Young Anders anywhere. He held a knife to the back of Snorri the Smith. Hands tied and mouth gagged, Snorri was visibly quaking and shivering. I did not blame him. His bald head glistened with bumps and bruises.
The black huldo ceased Their chant. One stepped forward, silver chains not even clinking.
“This is the Smith.” Young Anders thrust his prisoner towards the fire. “I clubbed him last night, and spent today softening him up, but I assure you, he’s still fresh.”
The black huldo glided over to Snorri, and encircled him slowly. “It smells of iron.”
“He’s a bloody blacksmith. Now what about that reward?”
“One moment. The fear, it is delicious. Verily, Dnosti provides.”
The black huldo stretched a pale hand towards Snorri, long fingers grasping like talons. Then it began to sing.
I knew what songs of lore could do, having watched my father heal sick animals and such. But I’d never seen anything like this. Blue light burst from the black huldo’s fingertips, and hit the blacksmith square in the chest. He staggered back, but only for a moment, because, as I watched, Snorri froze. There’s no other word: one moment a man stood there, the next an ice statue, shining and translucent, with raw terror still engraved upon its face.
“With the Smith gone, and the Shaman our prisoner,” said the black huldo, “we shall be free to search the town. Is there any word on the Arrow of Time? It is close.”
“I know nothing,” snapped Young Anders. “If anyone does, it’s the man you nabbed last night. Now, I’ve stood freezing my balls off while you’ve had your fun. So I’ll ask again, you eldritch bastard. Where’s my sacks of silver? Three, as I recall.”
“Silence, mortal, or you will taste our wrath.”
Young Anders strode towards the blue bonfire, heedless of the chill. “You promised you wouldn’t use magic against me. Everyone knows the huldo can’t break Their word.”
One of the other black huldo rounded the fire. “We promised you three sacks of silver if you brought us the Smith.”
“We did not specify when we were to give you these sacks. We shall gift them after your death.”
Young Anders drew his longsword, and levelled it at the black huldo’s face. “Cheats. Lying little cheats. I’ll cut your throats for this, with good, honest iron. Then I’ll take your heads down to Dnosti’s lair in a sack. You can’t stop me either: no magic, remember?”
The creature glided back effortlessly. “We promised our kind would not harm you with magic… but we have other methods.” It drew its own sword, a thin blade with a sheen like palest moonlight. “Now you shall die.”
Its brethren drew identical swords and closed in.
I had little love for Young Anders, who always seemed to be counting down the days until he inherited the tavern. He could hang for selling out Snorri, and I’d piss on his grave. But he knew where the black huldo’s lair lay. He, alone of mortals, might help me find my father. Which is why I had to save his worthless hide.
I stumbled to my feet, and pulled out the silver pipe.
“Hey!” I love taunting foes to their face, the deadlier the better. “Listen to…”
Kustata threw me down, and pinned me to the grass. He was stronger than he looked.
“What are you doing?” he hissed. Blue light streamed above my head. “You’ve killed us both!”
“No!” I shouted. “You don’t understand. This pipe makes huldo…”
“Bugger your pipe!” In a fluid motion, he ripped it from my hand, and flung it down the slope behind us. It bounced off a rock, and vanished into the night.
“No!” I heaved him off me. “I need to find it! It’s the only thing that can save us!”
Kustata slapped me, hard, across the cheek. “Get running!” he snapped. “Or I’ll kill you before They do!”
By the time I’d found the pipe, we’d all be dead. There was only one thing for it. Pushing myself clear of the man, I drew my sword, and leapt down to fight the black huldo blade-to-blade.
The last thing I heard before I went over the cliff was Kustata muttering:
“And they call me mad.”
I landed like a cat, just as I had with my last nine-foot leap. Sweet memories flooded back: angry guards or no, that mayor’s daughter had been worth it.
My smile vanished when I saw Young Anders. He was bigger than me, with a longer reach, but he looked hard pressed against six black huldo, even without magic. He was bleeding from his shoulder, and They had him up against one of the dead trees, fending off attack after attack. From where I stood, They were almost toying with him. Never strike deals with these bastards.
One of the black huldo turned to face me. I heard its deadly song, and leapt to my left; the blue bolt passed harmlessly. I cursed: these creatures could not use magic against Young Anders, but They had free rein against Manfred. The bonfire too sucked warmth from my veins, even as the other man ignored it. I had to lure some of Them away, to reduce the pressure on Young Anders, yet if I could only get close, black huldo were vulnerable to an iron longsword in the gut…
Another song, another leap. This one anticipated my counter, and nearly hit; only ducking at the last moment saved me. I needed to put something between us. Poor Snorri still stood five feet away, shining like a glass sculpture in the moonlight. I darted behind him, even as two blue bolts passed either side. That left the tree trunks. I ran to the nearest one, wishing it were more sturdy than a stunted birch. Meanwhile, Young Anders was fading fast.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Over here! I’ve got your Arrow of Time!”
Too clever by half. The black huldo turned as one, and sang a storm of deadly blue. I threw myself to the ground behind the birch, and felt the cruel and bitter cold pass an inch from my head. I looked up, expecting the next moment to be my last.
Then I heard the thud of a crossbow quarrel and a cry of inhuman anguish, and my heart rejoiced.
“No!” shouted Kustata from the cliff-top. “Your Arrow of Time is here!” He shot another quarrel at the black huldo–wooden not iron–and sent Them screaming across the dell. Leaping to my feet, I saw five of the creatures race over to confront Kustata; the glassy-eyed sixth lay with Young Anders’ sword through its throat. The man himself had slunk to the ground, blood gushing from a dozen chest and shoulder wounds.
Time was running out, but there was something I still needed to know. Sword in hand, I dashed to Young Anders. His eyes were glazed, but, thank the ancestors, he was still breathing.
“Run,” he coughed. Blood erupted from his mouth. “He’s buying time for you. Run.”
I looked over my shoulder. Kustata danced like a true madman atop that cliff, hurling insults and quarrels, and dodging whatever magic the black huldo threw back. But Young Anders was right: it was only a matter of time before They caught him.
I leant in close to the dying man. “Listen,” I whispered. “There’s a lair. Dnosti’s lair. Do They have my father?”
Young Anders nodded, wincing. Every breath must have been agony.
“The old silver mine,” he croaked. “Last night. Now run. Run, damn you.”
I did not need to be told again. With a glance at the cliff battle, I dashed through the trees and into the night. By all the ancestors, give Kustata time. But I had barely gone a hundred feet when I heard a sound that will forever haunt my dreams.
The black huldo’s howl of triumph.
I ran blindly, keeping always to thickets and dense undergrowth, and finally plunging into the murky, moonlit eaves of Lillivert Forest. For all I knew, other black huldo walked tonight: Kustata had told me these hills were no longer safe after sunset, and I believed him. But once They discovered Kustata lacked the Arrow of Time, They would come for me. My heart hammered in my chest; unseen twigs and branches raked my face; sweat beaded on my forehead despite the chill. Still I ran, heedless of anything but the black huldo on my tail.
At last, I heard running water in the distance. The Froko. I was deep into hill country, I knew, but if I followed the stream, I’d eventually find myself just south of Lillivert. I stopped and peered at the sky through the leafy canopy. The first pale light of dawn glimmered against the clouds. The twittering chorus of birds began to echo… I was almost safe. The black huldo must soon retreat underground for another day.
No sooner had I started moving again than I heard musical voices, so beautiful and perilous, ringing through the trees. Tired as I was, could I outrun Them until sunrise? Or would further flight draw Them to me, like flies to honey? The voices grew closer. I dived into the undergrowth, silently begging my ancestors’ protection. As I crouched, hidden, I heard my own heart beating.
I never heard Their passage through the forest; no crack of twigs, no rustle of bushes. Only voices, as sweet as They were deadly.
“I sense fear,” said one. “He is close.”
“But the Arrow is not,” said another. “He has led us away from it.”
“A slippery one.”
“We shall catch him another night. The Sun rises, and the Gate is near. Let us tell Dnosti of our victory. The mortals have lost their last protectors.”
The voices receded into the distance, but I waited a long time before leaving my hiding place. By then, the gloom had gone. Morning had broken on Lillivert Forest.
I stumbled into the light. Before me, the Froko murmured softly. It’s more vigorous in the spring, after the snows melt, but for now it ran tame and timid. Stripping off gloves, coat, and shirt, I washed myself in its bracing waters. Afterwards, I lay back and watched the stream, my body appreciating the long-forgotten pleasures of rest and sunlight. I knew I ought to get away, but I faced a crossroads of choices, with no good answers. Easier to relax, and enjoy a warm autumn morning. I nibbled on my salted horse-meat, and finished off the fire-wine with a silent toast to Kustata, before settling down on the grass. A brief nap in the Sun, then I’d…
I awoke with a start. The air had grown cool, and a wind was rising in the west. Tree shadows stretched long and dark across the stream. I looked for the Sun. My heart sank: I’d never get to Lillivert before nightfall. Cursing, but at least fit and rested, I donned my gear, and strode briskly along the riverbank. The black huldo had mentioned a Gate, likely a short-cut to the silver mine. I bit my lip. I no longer had the pipe, but I had a sword and my own native wit. Young Anders had shown the black huldo could be reasoned with, treacherous though They were.
I followed a turn in the Froko, and stopped. Twenty feet away, a huldo–a normal one–perched on a boulder beside the stream. Dangling its brown feet in the water, it kicked up small eddies while whistling to itself. The creature’s boots and woollen stockings lay strewn on the riverbank grass; the pointed toe of one boot poked from beneath a small blackberry bush.
The huldo cried out, and dived for its belongings with inhuman speed. Not fast enough: I got to the boot under the blackberry first, and wasn’t letting go.
“Not you!” snapped the huldo. It bounced on one foot, vainly grasping for its other boot. “You are the piper!”
Aha. “Do you want it back?” I asked, smirking. “Tell me what I need to know.”
The huldo gritted its teeth. “What would you know?”
“All about the Arrow of Time.”
It stopped bouncing. “A long tale.”
“Then tell me what it is, what it looks like, and why the black huldo want it.”
“As you request. The Arrow of Time is an artefact from ancient days, encasing the law that one event follows another. While it remains intact, events in the past will cause events in the future.”
I narrowed my eyes. “If it were broken?”
The huldo grinned. “Events in the future will cause events in the past.”
“But that would destroy everything!”
“For humans. Huldo have a more flexible perspective.”
I nodded. “So what does it look like?”
“No-one knows. Some insist it is literally an Arrow, others that it was disguised long ago. All agree it is small and silver…”
A shiver ran through me. “Disguised like a pipe? A small, silver pipe?”
The creature’s pupil-less eyes sparkled. “You have the Arrow!”
Shaking my head, I told of my recent adventure. With every word, the huldo’s face fell.
“I know of where you speak.”
I cocked my head. “It’s daytime. If you know this dell, hurry there, and seize the Arrow yourself!”
“I cannot, no more than any of my kind.” The huldo glanced at the forest. “Many years ago, before humans came to these lands, there lived a mighty sorcerer named Dnosti. What race he was, no-one today can say, only that he represented the greatest threat we have ever known. My people fought a great battle against him in these very hills. Dnosti was physically destroyed, his remains buried beneath this dell you describe. All was well… at first. Then, as the years became centuries, it became difficult for huldo to visit the place. Some power stopped us. Now? I can no more approach it than you can approach the Moon.”
“But the black huldo were there.”
“Servants of Dnosti. Do you not see?” The huldo looked grim. “He has returned. He empowers his followers to go there. He wishes the destruction of the Arrow…”
“… to change the past. To reverse his defeat.”
“Just so. Destroying you and all your kind in his wake.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How has Dnosti returned if he is still buried beneath the dell?”
“His spirit resides in some temporary body. A black huldo, most like, for the host must be willing.”
My ears pricked up. “If Dnosti is in a black huldo’s body, he’ll be vulnerable as They are vulnerable?”
“Entrenched as he is, it makes little difference.”
I grinned. “But it does. I have a plan.”
I ran a hand over the smooth cliff-face. “This is the Gate?” I asked doubtfully. The Sun was sinking behind the far hills. Mists were rising, and already shrouded Lillivert Forest.
“It is.” The huldo admired its restored boot. “You shall see.”
I had no choice. Hiking to the old silver mine would take half the night. “Remember to warn my people of what is coming.”
“I shall.” It smiled. “My blessings upon you, poor mad mortal.”
A low rumble emanated from within the stone.
“Here it comes,” said the huldo. “Farewell.”
It vanished. I drew a deep breath, and wondered what Lillivert would think. Manfred son of Olomo, alone, against Dnosti the Sorcerer and his black huldo: a tale worthy of remembrance, no?
The rumble grew louder. Suddenly, the broad outline of a door appeared in the cliff-face. Strange runic engravings ran along its edges. Then a horn rang out–it sounded like no hunt I’d ever heard–and as if on command, the door swung inwards to reveal a pitch-black tunnel. A band of black huldo stepped into the evening gloom, each cloaked and chained like Their brethren at the dell. They stopped and studied me.
“Do you wish for death, mortal?” asked one. It edged towards me, sniffing my air. “We can make it fast or slow.”
I betrayed no outwards panic. If Young Anders could treat with Them, so could I.
“I must see Dnosti,” I said. Do not let Them smell fear. “I am Manfred, here for my father, Olomo the Shaman, and wish to discuss terms.”
Even in the dim light, the eyes of the black huldo sparkled. “Do you have the Arrow of Time?”
“The Arrow of Time is part of those terms,” I said tartly. “Now take me to your master.”
The black huldo stroked its beard. “He is not our master. We aid him freely, as he aids us. But come. He has been expecting a visitor.” It glared at my weapon. “Touch your sword, and we shall slay you where you stand.”
I followed the creature into the tunnel.
In the total darkness, I could see nothing. Worse, I could hear nothing, save for the thud of my footsteps on stone. I knew They lurked all around, peering at me with pupil-less eyes, for hidden fingers pawed again and again at my shoulders and hair. Yet whenever I stretched out a hand to brush Them off, I felt only empty air. The black huldo moved without sound, without even whispers.
Then, as one, a line of blue-burning torches sprang into flame. I looked about. I was alone in a low-ceilinged corridor. The floor was paved with smooth, square stones, each inscribed with a single rune.
“Do not dally,” said an inhuman voice. I turned. My guide stood watching me. “Follow closely.”
I eyed the blue torches as I passed. The entire passage felt chill as a winter frost. I hunched my shoulders, burying my neck in the furs of my coat, but no matter how I tried, I could not slow the chatter of my teeth.
We came to the tunnels of the old mine. Dark and empty though they were, I relished the warmth, for no blue light tainted them. The black huldo produced a thin wand, and waved a hand over it, chanting. The wand emitted a pale, white light that illuminated rock and beam, but, thank the ancestors, did not leech heat. Keeping low, at times crawling on all-fours, I pursued this will-o’-the-wisp through the darkness. Thus it led me to Dnosti’s hall.
Bathed in a green glow, the Sorcerer’s lair was a hollowed-out cavern of some hundred feet, shorn of stalactites and stalagmites. In the centre stood a single black huldo in flowing velvet robes, hands clasped behind its back. The creature watched me as I entered, its eyes red as blood.
“You are Manfred?” Its voice tinkled, like a silver bell.
“I am.” I saw I was alone; my guide had disappeared into the darkness.
“Excellent.” The velvet-robed one strolled forwards. “I am Dnosti. Since you are here, you have something I want.”
Dnosti, kidnapper of my father. A being who had cheated death itself, and who would destroy all in pursuit of his designs. My hand twitched towards my knife.
“You have something I want,” I said calmly. “Show him to me.”
“As you wish.” Dnosti clapped his hands, and a wicker cage materialised ten feet away. There was a wide peephole set into the side, revealing the upper half of my father’s face. I nearly leapt with joy: he still alive.
“Manfred,” he cried. Lank grey hair fell over one eye. “Don’t give Them the Arrow!”
Before I could reply, Dnosti clapped again, and the cage disappeared.
The Sorcerer smiled. “Now where is the Arrow of Time?”
My heart beat faster. This was the key to my plan.
“I don’t have it with me.” I said, seeing Dnosti’s face sour. “But I’ll lead you to it. In fact, I’ll not leave that place until you’ve got the Arrow in your hand. In return, I ask for my father, alive and unharmed, and the assurance you’ll accept the Arrow from none but me.”
Dnosti’s red eyes glittered. “Clever lad. I see you have spent time in the company of huldo. Fascinating creatures. Yes, I accept those terms. But first we must make a Pact of Binding.”
“To ensure you keep your word. In the form of a black huldo, I cannot breach promises, any more than I can quench the Sun, but mortals are more fickle.” He smiled. “It would be ill to lie to me, Manfred.”
Dnosti clapped once more, and a white, swirling mist engulfed us. I waved a hand in front of my face–I could not see it. But I could see him.
“Repeat your promise.”
As I spoke the words, the mist glowed, before vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared.
I frowned, looking about me. Everything was as it should be. “So if I break my word, I die?”
“That would imply choice,” said the Sorcerer. My skin crawled. “Until I hold the Arrow of Time, you can do nothing but follow the path of your promise.”
Dnosti, myself, and five black huldo emerged from the Gate. The last looked at me, and I at Them. Was I any better than Young Anders? Still, it was too late to change course: I must see this through, to whatever end.
“The sky is beautiful tonight,” said Dnosti. Without yesterday’s cloud, the Moon and stars shone with fierce brilliance over the grey hills. “It has been too long since I last saw it.”
“How will we travel?” I asked. I judged it to be about ten o’clock. Was it too much to ask that we take a slow route?
Dnosti clapped his hands, and at once seven steeds appeared, each with a monstrous set of feathered wings. I rubbed my eyes. Such beasts were the domain of legend, not the waking world!
“I protest,” said a black huldo. “The unlings tire easily, and we need them for our attack.”
“Your people would still be maggots beneath the earth were it not for my power,” snapped Dnosti. “Do as I command.”
The black duldo bowed. “Yes, Dnosti.”
I approached the nearest unling. More fearsome than any horse, muscles rippled beneath its skin. It turned its head, and stared at me balefully, eyes glowing as if with inner flame.
“It will not harm you if I am present,” said Dnosti. “Climb on.”
The black huldo mounted the unnatural steeds, and we flew off into the night.
I shall never forget riding over Lillivert Forest on the back of an unling. The wind tore at my hair, the trees and hills spread out before me in a thousand shades of gloom: it was a song of lore come to life. Clinging to the great beast with neither saddle nor stirrup, I felt true freedom. For the unling’s part, I gave it no commands and it needed none. It followed Dnosti.
Flying is like fighting: everything slows down. When I spotted the dell, a bare patch of grey in the forest murk, I imagined I’d flown for hours. Yet, when I turned my head, I saw the Moon had barely moved. Once over the site, Dnosti’s mount circled ever downwards, followed by the black huldo’s, then my beast, which landed gently as a feather. I dismounted with a heavy heart. Never again would I ride the airs of the world.
“Farewell,” I told the unling. But it had already vanished.
Ringed by his five followers, Dnosti awaited me in the centre of the dell.
“Where is the Arrow, Manfred?” The tinkling bell was gone: his voice evoked pressure building behind a dam in spring.
“It is close,” I said. “I just need to fetch it. Perhaps some magical light so I can search better?”
“Dnosti,” said a black huldo. “Let us hunt. We need only moonlight and starlight.”
“Silence!” snapped Dnosti. “I have a Pact with this mortal, and I care not for your mewling.” He clapped his hands, and suddenly a flaming ball hung in the sky over the dell.
“I have provided your light, Manfred. Now bring me the Arrow.”
“One moment.” I blinked–the white flame was less than daylight, but greater than moonlight. Thank the ancestors, it did not drink heat. “You promised to return my father in exchange for the Arrow. Bring him here.”
“You grow insolent, Manfred,” growled Dnosti. “You know I cannot deny you your father once I hold the Arrow.”
“Nevertheless.” I pointed at Young Anders’ bloodied corpse, which still lay sprawled against a tree. “I have seen enough of the black huldo to beware such promises.”
“Very well.” Dnosti produced a leather pouch. Reaching inside, he withdrew a small wooden cube. He placed it on the ground, and clapped thrice.
As I watched, the cube grew and shifted, until it became the wicker prison.
“No, Manfred!” howled my father. “He will destroy everything! Destroy the world!”
“We have heard enough, Olomo,” said Dnosti. He clapped, and my father’s cries were muted. “Now,” he said, “no more favours, Manfred. Find it.”
As I walked from the dell, I felt Their eyes on me, burning with anticipation. Justified anticipation, for I was bringing this dead Sorcerer not just vengeance, but the chance to prevent his defeat ever happening.
The cliff–now adorned with a glittering ice statue–extended some distance, so I looped around to find the familiar slope. Aided by the magical light, I navigated the trees and bushes, snapping twigs underfoot. At last I stood looking up at Kustata’s frozen back. He had died reaching for a crossbow bolt. My heart beat faster. I‘ll avenge you, old man. Patience.
I recalled the pipe bouncing rightwards off the rock, so I started searching a nearby clump of tussock. I knelt, and ran my hands through the sprawling strands. The tussock had the texture of fine, damp string; on reaching further down, I felt the smoothness of a pebble, the grit of the dirt beneath, and–my heart leaped–the touch of cold metal.
I pulled forth the Arrow of Time. It glimmered in the magical light.
Drawing a deep breath, I rose, and trudged slowly up the slope. There would be no hiding, I decided. Tonight, many wrongs would be righted. I now stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man who had sacrificed his life for mine.
“I have your Arrow,” I called.
“Bring it here.” Dnosti’s voice quivered. He sounded fit to burst. “The Pact compels you.”
I smiled. “Your black huldo are able teachers. The Pact compels me to turn over the Arrow, but it does not specify when. I’ll give it to you at dawn.”
With that, I put the pipe to my lips and began playing.
I swear, Dnosti’s scream curdled milk and set hounds a-barking from Lillivert to East Ponlovic. But, as with the black huldo he led, he could not resist the call of the silver pipe.
“No!” he screeched, dancing to a tune no mortal could hear, the music of the Arrow of Time. “The Pact, the Pact!”
The black huldo howled too. “You have failed us, Dnosti,” cried one. “You have brought ruin on us all!”
“No!” Dnosti insisted. But his legs twisted and his arms swung, and for all his might he could no more escape than he could quench the Sun. Or break his word.
“Perhaps I shall wreak vengeance on you, mortal!” Dnosti spat. “An eternity in the blackest pits, where the tormented mind endures even as the body rots!”
I had nothing to fear from this Sorcerer, or his threats, so long as I kept playing.
“And your kin! Perhaps I shall feed you their screams, their agony, their cursing of your name!”
He fell silent for a long while. I played on. I hadn’t lied: the black huldo were excellent teachers, and as hour followed hour, I tore apart Dnosti’s every word for meaning. He had yet to bind himself, so I was not surprised when he began to beg.
“Manfred,” he crooned. “Clever, brave Manfred. I apologise for my anger. I promise safety, Manfred. For you and your father. I will not harm you or allow you to come to harm if only you free us.”
That was binding, but I played on.
“More,” said Dnosti. “The black huldo will swear to never hurt or kill another mortal again.”
“We swear,” sang the black huldo, as one.
The Pact still required me to hand over the Arrow, and I could not do that. We mortals cannot live when events do not follow each other, when the future slays the past before it is born. As I played on, I think Dnosti realised this too–but without breaking the Arrow, he was trapped, an abomination from another age who dreamed of something forever beyond his reach.
For the first time, I pitied him.
Do not misunderstand: I only had to glance at Kustata, at Snorri and Young Anders below, at my father imprisoned and silenced, to see Dnosti the monster. But he was a monster in pursuit of the one thing that gave his existence meaning. Could I have placed the Arrow in his hand, if he had promised to safeguard it and never allow its destruction? I don’t know. But I do know he could never have sworn that oath. Better to die at last, in the warm rays of the long-forgotten Sun, than condemn himself to an eternity of tortured futility.
Such were my thoughts as the night dragged on. My limbs grew stiff, and my mind filled with loathing for what I did, yet my breath kept flowing into the silver pipe, and my fingers never ceased their dance. There are more joyous ways to save mankind, of that I am certain.
“Manfred,” said Dnosti, his voice dripping with despair. “You will not let me go. I understand. But, please, release the black huldo. They will not attack you, but will merely return to the dark places…”
“I shall not,” said a black huldo.
“Nor shall I,” said another.
“Nor I,” said a third.
The remainder nodded sullenly.
“What is this?” shouted Dnosti. “I beg for your lives, and yet you refuse!”
“You gave us hope,” said the first black huldo. “A hope of ending the Curse, that we might regain our place in the natural order. Without you, there is nothing. Better to share your ruin, failure that you are, than to gnaw eternally on what might have been.”
They spoke no more. Tears ran down my cheeks—how could they not–but still I played on. Dnosti and the black huldo continued Their helpless dance even as the sky grew pale in the east, and birdsong rang in the eaves of Lillivert Forest.
The first rays of sunlight crept over the hills. Dnosti, the Sorcerer who had long cheated death; the black huldo, immortal creatures from another plane: Their skin and hair greyed and hardened, and thus They perished. None cried out even as They turned to stone–death was a release from the torment I had inflicted.
With dawn came the end of my tune. I paused, rubbed life back into my legs, and descended the slope. Numb and sore, tired beyond measure, I felt shorn of any sense of heroism.
On regaining the dell, I bypassed my father–still yelling silently from his wicker prison–and headed straight for the six new statues. I limped up to the one in the centre; its legs were askew, and it held one arm in the air even while the other grasped towards the cliff. The grasping hand was cupped, as if ready to receive the prize Dnosti had sought for so long.
“There,” I said, placing the silver pipe in Dnosti’s palm. “Our Pact is fulfilled.”
I half-expected the stone eyes to weep with joy.
Pulling my knife from my belt, I hacked into the wicker cage. One by one, I snapped the weaves, until I’d hewn a hole large enough for my father to crawl through. The moment he escaped the prison, he regained his voice: he chanted my name over and over, telling me that two nights in captivity had been as two months. Looking at his withered form, I believed it.
I lifted him to his feet, and we embraced.
“Manfred,” he sobbed. “You have saved us all.”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I have.”
“A mighty victory.”
A hollow victory. But I said nothing. A strange feeling, pity for the vanquished, for those black huldo who danced to their doom rather than live without hope. Dnosti’s pleas haunted me too. What had his last thoughts been…
“Truly you are worthy of our family sword.”
I pulled away. Looking into those grey eyes, so like mine, I shook my head.
“No,” I said.
I drew the sword from its sheath, and proffered the hilt.
“You keep it, father.”
He frowned. “What?”
“I need time. By myself. To think.”
“What is there to think about? You have just saved the world.”
I shrugged. “Exactly.”
My father spluttered and stormed, but I did not care. My time warming Lillivert firesides was drawing to a close.
I limped away through the trees. East, towards the rising Sun.