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Shadowland

Shadowland

Book excerpt

Prologue – The Storyteller

‘My name is Usher Vance, and mine has been a long and interesting life, or so I’ve been told before in company such as this.’ Brushing back a long strand of silver-grey hair, the old man gazed about at the small audience of expectant faces and settled himself more comfortably into the familiar leather chair. Over the years, he had come to regard the chair as his own and, like an old friend, was all too aware of its weaknesses and strengths. It creaked and sagged and he responded in a similar fashion, rearranging his somewhat considerable bulk as he fumbled for pipe and tobacco. His fingers began charging the clay bowl with motion requiring little thought and he smiled, relishing the delight of spinning yet another tale.

‘I have lived more years than I can remember.’ He leaned forward to better study a few of his nearest listeners. ‘Probably more than the sum of all your years combined. Kings have called me friend and heathen warriors have sworn to burn the flesh from my bones, vowing to search all seven halls of Hell to find me.’   

Several of the younger villagers in the room fidgeted and cast about for the reassuring sight of a parent or friend, but most simply stared at the old man with eager expressions, impatient for the tale, any tale, to begin.

As the summer had turned to autumn and, more recently, as the first cold days settled a wintry grip upon the land, the villagers had gossiped and speculated upon the subject of Usher’s story for this year.

The night of Midwinter’s Eve was a special night in the village and the event was celebrated with feasting, dancing, and one of Usher Vance’s stories for as many years as anyone could remember. For most of the year, the old man kept to himself and was reluctant to part with any of his tales. Tales that when finally offered, were told as episodes of his life, although this was rarely held to be true amongst the villagers. Each year, after clearing the remains of the meal from the long communal table, they would drift towards the huge fireplace, each finding his own place on the assortment of mismatched chairs and benches, but leaving the old stuffed leather chair ready for the storyteller.

The clay pipe glowed as the storyteller drew heavily upon it, building the heat as he slowly allowed the atmosphere within the room to grow.  At last, content that the pipe was good and lit, he blew out a long blue cloud of smoke, threw the taper into the fire, and pointed the stem towards several of the closest faces.

‘I see some of our younger friends gathered here tonight, and as long as they care not for troubled sleep in the weeks to come, then a story I shall tell…but what part of this life shall I lay before you?’ He sat back and sighed, bushy white eyebrows coming together in a thoughtful frown. ‘A tale of treasure and treachery, or love and war, what shall it be? So many years I have lived and so many things I have seen. Yet we only have these hours of darkness this midwinter’s eve, only enough time to fill the night with one true tale.’ He pulled on his pipe once more, and then reached over to lift a leather tankard to his lips. The villagers watched silently as the old man drank, heedless of the ale that escaped to run through his beard onto his stained waistcoat. Wiping his mouth upon his sleeve, he gazed about and judged it was almost time to begin; he was almost ready to cast the spell of a master storyteller.

The innkeeper stepped forward and set another log upon the fire, the flames crackled and spat, drawing everyone’s attention for a moment. A curl of smoke wafted out, escaping the confines of the chimney and filled the air with a sweet rich scent as the fire continued to crackle angrily. To minds freshly laid open, ready for a tale, it was as if a wild animal had been thrown a hunk of meat and was devouring it hungrily before them.

‘I think I now have something in mind,’ broke in the storyteller, reclaiming his audience. ‘A tale I have that has been some time coming. Tis a tale of battle and of love, of rescue…and betrayal. So please, make yourselves comfortable and we can begin.’

‘Once, when I was considerably younger than I am now, I met a king upon a hill. I knew him at once to be a king by the finery of his clothes and by his horse that was as white as the purest snow and as spirited as…’ A sound broke the concentration of the room and the storyteller stopped and stared back towards the door. The latch was rattling as someone tried unsuccessfully to gain entrance; a murmur filled the room as the villagers bemoaned the untimely interruption. The sound continued and the grumbling quickly became calls for someone to aid the intruder so the storyteller could continue.

Muttering incoherently, the innkeeper tugged back the heavy curtain that covered the door, keeping at bay all but the most insistent of drafts, and the audience turned once more to Usher Vance who had taken the opportunity to drain his leather mug. He passed it over, and then smiled in thanks as a serving girl exchanged it for a fresh one. After taking a sip, he readied himself to continue.

The sound of the door opening and someone being invited in was accompanied by a gust of frigid air that chased about the room; however, it was all but lost on the audience as they settled once more, eager for the tale to go on. The door slammed and the heavy wooden bolts were drawn back into place, hopefully as a barrier to any further disturbance.

Usher Vance cleared his throat and continued. ‘It was a fine day as I recall, with a sky of the deepest blue and a mere dusting of high cloud to offer some contrast to its perfection. The sun shone down upon us, as if it were a light cast from the heavens, purely to illuminate the splendour of this king and his noble mount. The rest of the king’s party were some distance away. He must have ridden to the top of the hill alone to take in the view and was clearly as startled to see me, as I was to see him.  I remember bowing low while the king attempted with little success to control his dancing horse, its nostrils flaring in agitation at finding me enjoying the beauty of the day, clearly both king and horse had thought, until I had disturbed them, that they were alone.

‘Good day to you, sire,’ I said, gazing up into a pair of icy blue eyes. ‘My name is Usher Vance and I apologise for the fright I brought upon your horse.’

Before he could continue, a soft dry voice broke the spell of the tale, cutting into the concentration of the audience and causing Usher to falter.

‘Still spouting stories of utter rubbish then, are you, Usher?’

The storyteller cast about the shadows, trying to see who had disturbed him. As he did, several in his audience spoke up, encouraging him to ignore the interruption and continue, while others hissed into the gloom in search of the unwelcome speaker. Somewhat unsettled, but seeing his audience still keen, Usher Vance drew upon his pipe and readied himself to go on, but the voice returned at the moment he opened his mouth.

‘He makes them up, and for some reason, keeps the real history of his life a closely guarded secret. Do you think he has a greater story that he chooses to hide?’

A frown creased Usher's face as he sought out the heckler. Everyone had turned towards the door and as Usher looked over, he felt the first low feelings of a strange foreboding enter into the pit of his stomach. In the fireplace, another log burnt through and settled causing flames to leap up, brightening the faces of the villagers and revealing for the first time a stooped figure by the door.

The stranger, leaning heavily upon a thick staff, was cloaked from head to foot in a dark material that glistened with droplets of rain, freshly brought in from the cold winter’s night.

‘Why don’t you tell them a real story, Usher? Why don’t you tell them who Usher Vance really is, and where he came from, instead of prattling on like some old fool with no life worth the telling of?’ The stranger took a step forward and, raising a cold white hand, drew the hood from his head. There were several drawn breaths and a whisper of speculation from the villagers as they watched this unexpected drama unfold before them.

The stranger pulled his eyes from Usher and gazed about him. ‘You have a personality of sorts before you, but not the one you thought you had.’ Usher felt the blood drain from his face as the shock of recognition crept upon him. He felt the clay pipe drop from his mouth but was only vaguely aware of the sound it made as it connected with the stone floor, breaking in two with the slightest of clinks.

‘No welcome, Usher?’ The stranger moved over to crouch down at the storyteller's feet. ‘I have made a long and terrible journey to find you, old friend, one I shall reveal another time. For now though, I beg you tell us a real story, Usher Vance, not one of your fancies. Why not tell of how two boys chanced upon some wolves and saw the world they knew come to its end. Talk to us, Usher Vance. It’s been so many years and my memories have all but deserted me.’

It took some moments while Usher considered the sparse white hair and the mottled, almost grey skin as the dancing flames of the fire revealed the stranger’s features. Finally, it was the eyes, they spoke to him of another time and another person; they still blazed with an intensity that he had almost forgotten. Sighing, as he collected his wits from where they had deserted him to the furthest corners of his mind, he addressed the visitor.

‘Good evening, Calvador. Forgive me for being somewhat bewildered; recognition was a little hard in coming after all these years. You always did like to make an entrance, didn’t you?’ He glanced around at the expectant faces and smiled as he accepted another clay pipe. Reaching out, he squeezed the shoulder of the kneeling figure and stared down into his cold, almost yellow eyes. ‘It’s good to see you, old friend. Will you stay to hear an old man’s story?’

‘I will stay to hear your story, Usher Vance, but the story is of two old men, not one. Two old men that were once boys, forced to grow up far too quickly, and I would also appreciate a chair and a mug of something warming, if that is not too much to ask.’

As one of the villagers helped him up into a chair by the fire, the innkeeper fetched mulled wine and a bowl of broth. ‘Please begin, Usher. I hunger for memories of times past.’ Accepting the broth, he blew steam from its surface before taking a tentative sip. After a moment, he looked up. ‘It has been a long time since I tasted anything quite so good, thank you.’ The innkeeper nodded and resumed his seat.

Seeing the room was at last settled, Usher gathered himself once more; ready to begin a tale he had not prepared, yet surely knew better than any other. ‘My name is Usher Vance and this... this is my friend, Calvador Craen.’ The old storyteller gazed at the small audience of expectant faces and then settled back. ‘We have both lived long and somewhat interesting lives, a little of which I shall try to recall for you now.’ He drew upon his newly lit pipe and nodded in appreciation. ‘Between us we are very likely to be far older than you may think. Let me start at the beginning… at the end of a beautiful day… many, many years ago.’

Chapter One – The end of a day

Edging his toes closer to the lip of the cliff, Usher peered down at the rock far below where Cal sat shivering in the lengthening shadows. If he didn’t do it now, then it wasn’t going to happen… he knew that. Biting back common sense and silently cursing himself, Usher stepped back and then committed himself to the jump that all summer he had felt destined to make.

‘Cal, Cal. Watch me … Cal!’

Running two steps forward he took a mighty leap, to gain some distance from the jagged belly of the cliff, and flew, rejoicing in the sudden rush of air as he tumbled, arms and legs waving wildly as he narrowly missed the rocky outcrop of the cliffs that they called The Tooth. 'Caaaaaaaaaaaaaalll!'

As the dark water of the lake rushed towards him, he stole a moment of satisfaction from the shocked look on Cal’s upturned face. He just caught his cry of ‘Usher…You crazy fool! Ush...’ before he hit the cold water with an explosion that drove the air from his lungs and plunged him into a world of confusion.

The lake claimed him. A roaring sound filled his ears, and he struggled to control the panic that threatened to smother him. He gagged, and just managed to resist the impulse to draw a breath of ice-cold water into his aching lungs. The lake filled his senses, fizzing and swirling, smothering him as he kicked out, desperately seeking a direction for the surface with its promise of salvation and sweet warm air. At last, where he least expected it, sunlight revealed itself, dancing in patterns on the surface, and he kicked towards it, frantic in his need to breathe.

Slowly, very slowly, he closed in on the shimmering light, fighting the lake’s reluctance to release him from its cold embrace. After an age of effort, he broke the surface, drew a great, gasping breath, and coughed. Then pain exploded in his hand as it struck a rock. Ignoring it, he stretched out struggling to claw himself onto the rock until there was one glorious moment where he relaxed and slowly brought his breathing under control.

‘Usher? Usher?’ Cal’s cry brought him back to reality.

Looking up for the first time, he drew breath to call out in response, but then saw that he had surfaced some distance from where he had entered, and that Cal was standing with his back to him on the opposite side of the rock. Cal was frantically peering below into the depths of the lake, still searching for some sign of him. Very slowly, Usher climbed out and, taking care where he placed his feet, crept across the treacherous surface.

‘Usher?’ Cal was shivering, standing with his bare feet searching for grip as he edged closer to the water. ‘Usher?…Hell’s teeth Usher!…We never jump from the point, you crazy goat. Usher! Ush... ’

Moving forward, Usher shoved him, silencing his friend's cries and sending him flying into the icy water, arms flapping for a hold on empty air.

He sat shivering and hugged his knees, and then grinned as moments later, Cal fought to the surface coughing and spluttering.

Usher, you…!’ screamed Cal, clearly annoyed as he splashed water up at his tormentor.

‘Come on, Cal, stop playing about. You’ll catch your death of cold in this water. Isn’t that what your mum always says?’ Usher drew his lips together and in a high-pitched voice, mimicked Cal’s overbearing mother. ‘Calvador, you wrap up warm and look after your sister. No swimming, climbing, hunting or having fun of any sort, do you hear me, young man!’ A stick came flying towards him and as he sidestepped to avoid it, he slipped then stumbled, scraping his back on the rock and sliding into the water once again. His face creased and his back arched in a spasm of pain and then the water abruptly cut off his cry as he slid below the still surface. Cal struck out, swimming around the rock in an effort to get to his friend as he came spluttering back to the surface. They helped each other up onto the rock, and it was all Usher could do to mumble his thanks with his face still reflecting the needles of pain in his back.

‘I think it’s about time we got back,’ said Cal, as he clambered up and gathered their things. He sorted through until he found Usher’s tunic and threw it over as Usher flopped down. ‘Are you all right?’ Usher nodded.

During the long hot days of summer, the lake was a favourite location for everyone at the village. The women washed clothes in it, most people chose to bathe there at least once a month, and many would use the shallows close to the wood to cool off or play once their work was done. The cliffs however, were a special place for the boys of the village. It was a tradition to challenge each other to climb ever higher before leaping down into the lake’s icy waters far below. This late in the year, there were few other swimmers, especially as the chill air came in towards the end of the day. It was to be Usher and Cal’s last swim of the summer and so Usher had made the one jump that no other boy from the village had made.

They were shivering as they hurried to pull on leggings and coarse linen tunics, exaggerating the chattering of their teeth and laughing at each other’s efforts to dress. Usher fought with the unyielding material, trying to drag it down over his growing body. At fourteen years, he was growing fast, faster than his mother could stitch new clothes, and with a sound that made them both stop what they were doing, the linen ripped at the neckline.

‘Oh, wick!’ moaned Usher. Taking a deep breath, he slowly pulled the obstinate tunic into place before investigating the damage.

‘It’s only come away at the stitching,’ observed Cal. ‘Maybe Nineve will be able to fix it before your mother sees it.’

Usher shook his head. ‘Nineve might try, but she only has eight summers. I doubt she can stitch any good yet, can she?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Come on, let’s get going, we’re losing light.’

If it got too dark, the path would be treacherous. Both boys had finished the climb after sunset on several previous occasions, and been forced to make the last few spans in darkness, praying that they might find the next handhold and not become stuck clinging to the cliff until daybreak.

When they finally made it to the top, the sun was touching the horizon with the last of its light shimmering across the lake in a blinding show of colour. They sat and rested, watching entranced as the sun melted slowly below the far tree line, turning the sky blood red and painting the edge of a solitary cloud with a deep pink blush. Gazing upwards, they could see every shade of orange and yellow until it faded directly above them to a green and then blue, it was a worthy display for the last day of summer. The first few stars were already sparkling and a crescent moon sat high in the east. Far below, a commotion drew their attention towards the centre of the lake. A raft of ducks splashing across the smooth orange surface of the water came towards them, gaining speed in an effort to become airborne. The sudden movement jolted the boys into action, and had them untying slings from their waists before scrabbling around to find good rounded stones.

Cal was the first to stand ready. Whirling the sling around his head, he let fly, but then groaned as the stone missed, startling the ducks into veering away. When Usher rose a moment later, the opportunity had passed.

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