“No one ever has returned from the darkness!” asserted Hallr. The lumberjack’s eyes gazed indifferently at the men in the hall.
Eadweard entered the room unnoticed. A couple of torches were lit at the far corners of the hall, throwing languid shadows onto the ground and the walls. His father was striding back and forth, a fury in leather and furs, and his austere face was wrinkled with grief. His mother stood near him sobbing. She was a sturdy woman, fair and cheerful, but now looked like a wretched stranger. His stomach lurched. He looked around for his brothers and sister. When he woke up and found their beds empty, he thought that they might be in the hall, from where the noises were coming, so he headed straight for it. He did not expect to find his parents in the presence of the lumberjack, the mason, and the two watchmen. And that was when he realized that something was going on here. Something unexpected. Something terrible.
His gaze stopped at the far corner of the hall. Under the dim glow of the torch he could distinguish the silhouette of a child snuggled up in furs on the ground. It was too small to be Tuathal. Was it Caoimhe or Brandr? And why just one? Where were the others?!
“You can’t risk the lives of the men! We’re few already!” Hallr went on talking, as none of the here presented said a word. “Who will put their life in danger? We all have families… “
“Then I will go,” Eadweard’s father insisted, “alone!”
His mother gave a short, horrified cry.
“You can’t!” objected the mason and stepped forward. “We need you here, Eirikr! We have to keep the fires burning! You know the ancient magic has started to dwindle. It cannot protect us anymore, unless we keep an eye on the beacons unceasingly. The last rainfall had put out the fire on seven of the pillars. Seven! Hadn’t it been for Hraban’s warning, the gloom would have spread across the western fields.”
“Yet the men managed to light the fires again!” replied Eirikr.
“You were one of these men!” the mason pointed out. “If you were not…”
One of the watchmen made a step towards the mason and put a hand on his shoulder.
“You are our chieftain, Eirikr!” he spoke. “The folks in Kielo love you! The men will gladly obey you, because you are strong, and brave, and wise. But do not ask us to go into the darkness! ‘Coz we are peasants, most of us farmers, and we have spent our entire lives within the Circle. We have wives and children here, we have cattle and fields, and a duty towards this land. You have a duty to keep Kielo safe! The darkness beyond the beacons is dangerous. There is nothing out there but death! We need you here! Your children need you here! You have lost a son and a daughter tonight, but you still have two more sons…”
Eadweard heard no more of the watchman’s speech. Caoimhe! And Tuathal! The darkness had taken them. How?! Why?! He felt terribly nauseated, suddenly the air in the room became suffocating and he began to gasp. He leaned back against the wall, his hand felt for the doorway. Once he had found the gap, he sneaked off the hall and hurried towards the big door. By the time he reached it, teardrops were rolling down his cheeks.
It was quiet and warm summer night. The pale moon peered down at him from behind a ragged cloud. Crimson and dark gold shades crawled on the low horizon. Reflections of the fires on the beacons. And though he could not see them, he knew that the ancient pillars stood there, majestic and silent, protecting the realm from all the horrors of the darkness.
Why didn’t you save Caoimhe and Tuathal then?! He snivelled and shivered. And wiped away the tears from his face with the back of his hand.
“You shouldn’t be outside, child!” croaked an ancient voice.
The old hunched woman paced slowly, leaning on a thick stick. Eadweard squinted at her and watched her sit down on the broad log in front of the house with a great effort. She gave a sigh of relief and patted on the log, inviting him to take a seat next to her. The boy hesitated, then stepped towards the log, sniffling.
“What is there, grandma,” Eadweard asked as he sat down. “in the darkness??”
“I dunno. Some say there’s death, some say there’s nothing.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No!” she sounded a little bit frightened. “Those who dared to venture in the darkness never came back.”
“Then how could someone know what is in the darkness?!”
She shrugged and stared at the starless sky above as though she would find the answer there. The moon had hidden behind thick clouds. A few moments of silence, then she spoke.
“Don’t bother your mind with such dark matters, child! Leave the worries to the elders. You’re too young, too…”
“I was in the great hall.” murmured Eadweard. “They said no one would go there to look for them. They said Caoimhe and Tuathal were… dead.” He had to force himself to say the last word.
“Oh!” His grandma moaned, eyes brimmed with tears, but she mustered all her composure to restrain from sobbing.
“I wish I could save them, grandma!” Eadweard sighed. “But I’m not a warrior, I don’t even have the strength to wield a sword… I only have this stupid, big heart of mine, loving and bleeding…”
“Big hearts are the bravest, my child!” the old woman said softly. “It’s not the strength in the arms that makes a hero, but the courage in the heart!” She bent over and kissed him on the forehead, longer and warmer than any other time, then slowly got up, clutching tightly the stick, and tottered away.
Eadweard stared at her until she turned around the corner of the house and disappeared. The clouds tore apart and the moon appeared again in the sky, casting silver shadows on the ground. At that moment Eadweard’s attention was attracted by some glitter on the log next to him. It was a fine, sharp blade, not more than a foot long, hilt craftily curved and wrapped in leather. A dagger.
Eadweard looked around puzzled. Did grandma just leave it here?! There was no one else around. Of course she did! Who else?! But didn’t she also tell me not to meddle in the affairs of elders!?
His eyes fixed at the glittering blade in awe, heart pounding wildly in his chest, and his skinny hand reached out for the dagger.