“Well, here we are,” said Keelath, pushing open the door to the cottage.
Evelos glanced into the dark interior of their new home with a wrinkled nose. It smelled dusty and just a bit musty. Seeing his expression, his mother Mirium brushed past him and began throwing open the windows.
“It just needs a little airing out,” she said.
“There’s a master bedroom on the top floor, a study, and a smaller room I believe we can turn into your bedroom,” said Keelath. “The windows are all east-facing, so we should get some nice sunrises.”
“Yeah, if the trees were any shorter,” Evelos grumbled.
“We just have to make the best of it,” said Mirium, leaning back and coughing as one of the shutters let out a massive puff of dust in her face. She waved the dust away and turned back to Evelos.
“I just don’t see why we had to move at all,” Evelos whined.
“Now, I know you’re upset about leaving behind your friends at the city,” said Mirium, “but the village isn’t far, and I’m told there’s at least two other ‘mari your age living there. Maybe you can meet them at the festival tonight.”
“Festival?” said Evelos, perking up. “What festival is that? I didn’t think today was a holiday.”
“Some local tradition,” Keelath scoffed as he trundled back in with an unwieldy crate. He dropped it on the floor, and another cloud of dust erupted. “We have no time for that nonsense. Your uncle Tyrric was going to drive the rinaani down today, and I’ll be out all night navigating the river with him. You and Mirium will need to unpack all this by yourselves.”
Evelos sighed, and Mirium nodded sadly. “Next year, I suppose,” she said softly.
“Hmph,” said Keelath and stepped out of the door again.
The unpacking was slow, just as much from Evelos’ reluctance as from Mirium being too small to lift the heavy crates on her own from the travel disc. “Oh, you would think they’d at least put enough magic into this thing to move them into the house itself!” she complained.
“I guess we’re not unpacking tonight then,” said Evelos listlessly. Then he sat up with a little more hope. “Maybe that means we can go to the festival?”
“You heard your father,” Mirium returned sternly. “If you gave me a hand, we could shift this crate and that one under the eaves of the porch, at least.”
Dusk drew on, the shadows from the trees creeping across the ground like long fingers. Evelos shuddered to think of it.
“It’ll get much darker here than in the city,” said Mirium, watching him.
“We’re miles and miles away from any civilization,” Evelos said gloomily.
“That’s not true,” said Mirium. “See that bit of white through the trees there? That’s our neighbor’s home. Keelath met him yesterday morning. He seems friendly.”
“Okay, so we’re a few acres away from some guy and miles and miles away from any civilization,” Evelos grumped.
Mirium groaned. “You’re just tired, Evelos — and probably hungry. I’m hungry, too. I noticed the old inhabitant left some pots and pans behind. Why don’t you go out in the garden and see if there’s any herbs fit for spicing up a stew?”
“Fine,” said Evelos, hopping down from the porch and rounding the cottage. He glanced in the direction of the neighbor, but the stone house was invisible behind the trees again. The trees grew close all around their new place, except a small clearing for the cottage, and another for the empty stable and its yard, another quarter mile away. A stone wall encircled the property, weaving in and out of the trees and looking very much like a human’s fence, or so Evelos thought. The garden at the back of the cottage instead was walled by wicker overgrown with vines. He brushed them with his hand as he walked past. Perhaps they would have grapes or berries on them in the spring.
The inside of the garden was just as unkempt as the outside. With winter coming on, most of the plants were dead and brown, though Evelos spotted a few green leaves hidden under the twigs. He smelled sweetroyal and pincress as he bent down to pull the twigs out of the way and harvest a few of the herbs’ leaves.
The gardening absorbed his attention, and the sun slipped over the horizon as he worked. The shadow from the wall leaned over him, and Evelos suddenly stood up, spooked. The darkness, so deep and silent out here away from Dawnmist, seemed to have a presence of its own. He couldn’t even hear Mirium moving inside the cottage.
He grabbed his armful of leaves and dashed into the house, leaving a trail of sweetroyal behind him. Mirium looked up as he rushed in. She had a little fire going in the old fireplace, and somewhere she had found a stewpot with which to start a broth based on their travel rations. Evelos stood and stared at her, a few more leaves dropping from his arms.
She had been looking out the window, though at what, Evelos couldn’t see from this angle. “Oh dear, I hope your father gets home soon,” she said, coming away from the window and giving the stew a stir. “He always hates driving the rinaani at night. What did you find there? Smells like sweetroyal — oh! That will go well with the salt pork.”
“I guess,” said Evelos and dumped the whole armload into the pot.
“Evelos! Not so much! What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know,” said Evelos. “It’s creepy out here.” He stirred the leaves in, and the stew turned from smelling of flour and meat to smelling of plants.
“It’ll feel better once we get settled in and unpacked,” said Mirium. “I found your blankets and cleared a space for you in the little room upstairs.”
“I bet it’s all spidery,” said Evelos, ducking his head and quickly slopping a ladle-full into his bowl. “I’ll check it out.”
“Don’t spill!” snapped Mirium as he took to the stairs.
The stone steps felt cold even through the leather of his shoes. Evelos found the room — there were only three doors in the entire upper hall — and pushed his way inside. His mother had made up a bedroll for him, as she said, and the warmth of the hearth below was seeping through the floorboards. A stack of boxes loomed in one corner. Evelos set down his bowl and pushed them over, re-arranging them into a pretend fortress about the bedroll. Forgetting his meal, he played Defend-the-Castle, though it wasn’t nearly as fun without Croatius or the other boys from the city.
His soup was cold by the time he remembered it and sat down to taste it. He had heard Mirium moving about downstairs as he played, still unpacking long into the evening – probably fussing over the placement of all her medicinal herbs, Evelos thought. He couldn’t hear anything from her now, though. The window near the rafters was drafty, and he could hear the wind blowing in and out of it with a soft sighing. It gave a particularly large blast suddenly, and the sigh turned into a whistle. Evelos put the bowl down.
There had been something else under that whistle. He pushed out into the hallway and up to one of the other doors. He creaked it open: the room beyond was large, and he could just make out the tall posts of a two-person bed, but the light wasn’t strong enough to see if anyone was in it. Evelos shut the door and moved on to the next room, the third in the hallway. He pushed it open.
The room was dark, and he could see nothing except a sliver of moonlight on the floor, leaking through either a cracked shutter or a gap in the siding. He stepped gingerly inside, and he squeaked when he stepped on a loose board with a loud creak and groan. The wind gave another howl just then, and Evelos fled screaming down to the kitchen.
The fire was still going, but low, the flames only a few inches high. The room was lit with a reddish glow, and Evelos wished desperately for the magical white lights of they had had in Dawnmist. He could just make out the curve of his mother’s back in the corner, leaned over her primer for her evening devotions, or so Evelos thought. She hadn’t looked up when he had come in, and he crept over to her, shivering.
Mirium didn’t move. Evelos touched her shoulder and clung to her, like he was five years old instead of nearly ten. She turned to him slowly, and he was about to smile at her when he noticed her eyes were like dark holes instead of their normal soft glow.
He stepped back, shuddering. Mirium’s face came into the light, and her face was normal again. Evelos rubbed his eyes to be sure.
“Is everything… alright?” said Mirium haltingly.
“I don’t like it here.”
“It is very lonely, isn’t it?”
“Sleep,” Mirium suggested, and her voice was strange, as strange as her darkened eyes and face had been. Evelos took another step back.
The wind howled, and Mirium came to her feet impossibly fast, her shadow stretching across the floor weirdly, towards the firelight. Her eyes were black again and her red hair had turned silver.
“You’re not my mother!” Evelos screamed and dashed from the house.
He wasn’t sure where he was going; he had it in his mind that he had to find his real mother and get them both away from here. He saw the old stables through the trees again and turned to go that way. Maybe his mother had gone to prepare them for the rinaani.
Evelos tripped on a root in the dark and cut his hands. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but the shadows of the undergrowth seemed to twist his way, clawing at the blood like demonic ympes lapping it up. He closed his eyes and ran further on, until he smacked into something hard – the siding of the old stable. The windows were dark, and he felt his way to the double door and pounded on them. No one answered.
He glanced back at the cottage fearfully. The light from the hearth had gone out, and he could see nothing except a hulk of shadow where the building stood. He ran around the corner of the stable so he didn’t have to look at it.
The woods were a little more open here, and he could make out a white cobble path glittering in the moonlight. He stumbled up it, and it led him up a rise so he could look down into the Thalas’Talah valley. He could see the village now as dots of light in the dark. Every so often there was a whistle, and a firework would burst over the town. He felt calmer just looking at it.
“What are you doing out here alone?” came a voice.
Evelos looked up. He noticed now that the cobble path led into a private garden, and a family of wuyon’mari were coming down it, carrying lanterns that lit their faces from underneath. Each was wearing clothes of festive colors and carried a sprig of sunspear flowers in one hand.
“H-hi,” said Evelos. “I-I’m new here.”
“I’ll say!” said one of the villagers, a man with auburn hair. “You shouldn’t be alone out here on the Night of the Whip’s Will, you know.”
“The-the whippoorwill?” asked Evelos. “Like the bird?”
“Nay, the Whip’s Will,” said the oldest woman, her long hair a cheery silver-blonde that twinkled in the light of the lanterns. “My, you really are new here. It’s the festival, you know? It’s a lot of fun.”
“My father said I can’t go to the festival,” said Evelos, confused and frightened.
“Why? Are you the Whip himself?” said the first man with a laugh. “Seeking the blood of the lost? Might your foul spirit evaporate into air if you come a little closer into the light?”
“Be nice to the boy,” the woman scolded.
“Oh, I was just having a poke—”
Evelos rubbed his face. His heart was pounding, but he wasn’t breathing as hard as before. He thought the villagers were right, and he was being rather silly to think that… something could have possessed his mother, something dark and foul, with a will of its own.
“Tell you what,” said the man. “Why don’t you go get your folks and we’ll all go down to the festival together? The more, the merrier after all.”
“I, uh,” stammered Evelos, trying gamely to get his thoughts in order.
“That’s a good idea,” said the woman with an approving nod. The family was all smiles now, and Evelos’ cheeks burned.
“I’ll be back!” he said abruptly, and he turned to trot back the way he had come.
“Don’t take too long!” called the woman after him. “The Whip might get you…” she added with a spooky quaver to her voice, and the others all laughed.
Evelos chuckled uneasily to himself. To think he had been scared by an old folktale! Even so, he paused on the doorstep of the cottage, hesitating before reaching up to the door and tugging it open. He couldn’t see, and his heart jumped into his throat, but he reminded himself he was being silly and stepped inside.
His sleeve snagged on something as he passed the doorframe. He turned around to shrug it off, but as he touched it, the something… moved. It was alive! And it had… claws! It shifted in the dark rapidly, finding a better grip on him.
“No, no, no!” Evelos cried out. “Mother, help me!”
The person, or the creature, or the spirit, or whatever it was, only leaned over him. He smelled sweetroyal, and he also smelled something nasty, like rotting meat. Two red eyes blinked at him, and the shadow was so deep he could suddenly see nothing but them. He covered his head and waited to die.
Then there was a soft spitting noise, like a match flaring to light. Evelos glanced between his fingers, and there was Keelath, the wuyon’mar’s angular face twisted in rage, holding his sword in one hand and a ball of furious Light magic in the other.
“Take your claws off my son,” his father growled.
The creature that had been straddling Evelos slid away into the darkness. It had been shaped something like a man, but impossibly long and thin. Keelath stepped over Evelos and swung out with the sword into the dark, and there was a chilling screech as it hit something.
“Get out of the way!” Keelath snapped at him, and Evelos didn’t need telling twice as he scrambled into a corner. Keelath turned his blade down to parry a thin hand tipped with claws that whipped out of the darkness. Then the wuyon’mar stood back, drawing on his inner Light so it filled the entire room – but only for an instant. Something seemed to suck it away as fast as it was made.
“Something just crawled out the window!” someone cried from outside, and Evelos recognized the voice of his uncle, Tyrric. There was a rinaan’s neigh, a hiss, a thud of something heavy striking the ground, an unearthly scream. “I got it!” called Tyrric again, triumphantly. Then there came another hiss, and Tyrric yelled out, “Nevermind!”
Keelath didn’t answer him, quartering the room and standing between Evelos and the deeper darkness. His father drew on the Light again, forming it into a spear and punching the shadow with it, and the room flashed light and dark like a kaleidoscope as he and the creature battled back and forth.
There were more voices from outside then, and a pure yellow light came in through the windows. Someone in a brightly colored robe stepped through the front door, and the light from his lantern filled up the room. The dark creature dived into the shadows, snarling with aversion; then it seemed to meld and melt away into the dark with a grudging hiss.
The blonde woman Evelos had met on the road earlier peered around the corner, and she beamed when she saw Evelos. “There you are! Ohhh, is this where you live? So you’re the new tenants?”
“Keelath Sunwalker,” said Keelath by means of introduction, but he didn’t avert his eyes from where the creature disappeared.
The red-haired man was pale-faced. “The Whip! Light help us, stranger, didn’t you know about the festival?”
“What about it?” said Keelath, and he was finally persuaded to turn away and meet the villagers’ eyes when Tyrric came in from the back door and flashed a thumb’s up sign to his brother. Evelos saw Tyrric’s sword was dripping with a strange black blood.
The villager just shook his head. “The Whip. It’s an ancient spirit that lives in the hills in these parts. Comes out on the darkest night of the year, feeds on the living. Carro help us! You could have been killed! It’s a good thing you wield the Light, ser, for I don’t know anything else that wards it away so well.”
Mirium stumbled downstairs at that moment, looking muzzy and disoriented. She glanced over at Evelos, and seeing the fear on his face, quickly went to his side and put an arm about him. Keelath raised his sword uncertainly, but he seemed relieved Mirium looked alright.
“The festival drives it away,” the villager was saying. “Didn’t the man who sold you this place tell you? Oh, it’s a wonder your family is safe.”
“I, uh…” said Keelath awkwardly. “I thought the festival was only a heathen’s ritual.”
“Well, that’s pretty rude,” remarked Tyrric.
“By Carro’s shield, no!” exclaimed the man. “Most of the people who live here aren’t as lucky as you, having the Light magic and all. Instead, we ward the village with the love and good will that the festival inspires in us. The Whip hates such things.”
“I see,” said Keelath, and his face changed. “I… didn’t know.”
“Well, that is that, and no harm done,” said the woman. “This place is rather drafty, isn’t it? Why don’t you join us in the village? There is good food, and games for your little one, and oh, I bet we could find a dress that would brighten the cheeks of your lady something fierce, Ser Sunwalker.” She grinned.
Mirium colored faintly. “I think I would like that.”
Keelath bit his lip, looking back and forth between them all. Then he came over to Evelos and knelt down beside him. “Let it be known your father makes mistakes sometimes,” he told him, “and let it also be known he does his best to fix them once he sees that they have been made. I’m sorry. I should have listened to you and not been so pedantic about the packing.”
Evelos just hugged him, choked up with relief that the darkness was gone.
Mirium smiled faintly at them. “The festival then, dear? We can always unpack tomorrow,” she said.
“Yes,” said Keelath. “I think that would be wise.”
“Then welcome to Thalas’talah!” bellowed the red-haired man. He shook their hands, even Tyrric’s, who had to quickly put his sword under one arm to have his hands free. “I’m your neighbor, by the way.”
“Charmed,” said Tyrric through gritted teeth. Evelos finally smiled.