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Nethergate: A Faerie Tale


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saraid.pngcamlin.pngOf course it was obvious why Saraid and Camlin were chosen; they had both been studying druid mysteries for years, under different masters. Such adepts were not common even in those days. For our village to lose two at once was quite a blow; they could not easily be replaced. Only the gods knew if they would ever return.

 

connal.png Connal, too, seemed a reasonable choice. Though young and untested, he was well-trained in the arts of war, strong, and eager to take the fight to the Romans. Like almost any lad in the village, truth be told. He was well-liked besides and of good family, the son of old Caedmon, our chief’s brother. And handsome enough, if one cared about such things.

 

aithne.png What no-one could understand, least of all me, was why they selected skinny, half-wild Aithne as the final member of the group that was to journey to a place called Shadowvale for some mysterious purpose. While I could shoot a tick off a rabbit’s ear at a hundred paces, I’d never actually used my sling for anything but small game—and imaginary Romans, of course. And as my foster mother was apt to point out, I had failed to learn any other useful skills at all thus far, unless one counted climbing trees and escaping chores.

 

But as bizarre as it seemed, we were told that we had been asked for specifically. The nation of the Brigantes needed the four of us, and no others would do. We said hasty farewells to our loved ones, knowing that we might never meet again, and set out at once.

 

Seven days’ hard journeying left us little time to get better acquainted. We all knew each other somewhat, of course—everyone did in our village—but none of us had been close friends. The two druids had spent most of their time in the sacred groves; Connal with other boys his age, hunting or training with the seasoned warriors. As an unremarkable girl-child two summers younger than Connal, I had previously been beneath everyone’s notice. Though I was two years a woman by then, you wouldn’t have known it to look at me, which pleased me well—I was in no hurry for husband and hearth.

 

Now it seemed that we were all to be warriors together. It was a sobering thought, and when we reached the village of Nethergate late on the seventh night of our journey, it was not weariness alone that stopped our mouths and sent us silent to our sleeping pallets for our first night in Shadowvale.

 

As morning light trickles into the hut through the seams in the door, we’re already up and gathering our equipment in preparation for whatever the day will bring. “That’s a fine new sling.” Connal remarks to me, as he tests the edge on his own new weapon: an iron spear of local make. He seems pleased.

 

Saraid finishes binding her pale hair into a tight plait. “We should go now. The druid Cormac will be waiting for us.” Camlin pulls up the hood of his robe and limps to the door.

 

We step out, blinking in the light, and gaze around us at a sight both familiar and strange. “This could almost be home,” I say, “except...”

 

The wall. Nethergate is completely surrounded by a smooth stone wall, obviously much newer than the village itself. Camlin walks up to it, runs a hand over the closely fitted stone blocks. “Odd.” he murmurs. Saraid seems troubled. “Dead stone,” she says, turning her back. “Look,” she points to the northeast, “that must be the hill we’re supposed to find.” Connal casts a speculative look at the wall before we all head towards the hill.

 

We walk slowly through the village, taking in the sights and sounds, stopping to chat with farmers and warriors that we meet. Everyone is polite, but there’s an anxious feeling in the air. Several huts look interesting, including a smithy, but we have an appointment to keep so we leave those for now. On the way, we meet a priestess named Mugain, tending a fire near the north wall. She’s friendly enough, if reserved. She tells us a little of her life story, but nothing of much use.

 

Finally, we approach the hill that rises in the northeast corner of the village. On it a druid, ancient in years, stands perfectly still with his eyes closed. As one, we pause. I whisper to Camlin, “Have you heard of this Cormac?”

 

“No,” he replies, “but I can sense his power from here.” Saraid nods in agreement. Connal speaks up: “Come, let's learn our purpose here.” He steps forward, and the rest of us follow.

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I stumble away from the hill, not entirely certain what has just occurred. There was a searing light, then something about goblins? I turn to Connal, who is standing nearby looking equally stunned. Glancing back, I see that the other two are still hovering near the old druid, talking earnestly. Soon they leave him and head our way; they seem to be arguing quietly but heatedly.

 

“...of no use if we’re all dead!” Saraid is saying as they arrive.

 

Visibly shaking off the effects of the strange encounter, Connal turns to face them. “What is it?”

 

Camlin shrugs. “Either way, we’re going to need more gold than we have. Much more. Cormac is very learned, and willing to teach us, but he demands a price.”

 

Connal considers. “Well. Perhaps we’ll find spoils in the...peat mine, was it? Where the goblins are.” He shakes his head, as if he too is having trouble taking it in. “Before we go, we should—” A hoarse cry from a nearby hut interrupts him.

 

Inside, three men are chained to rocks. They admit, with varying degrees of anger and stoicism, to being condemned prisoners, captured while on a cattle raid. One of them begs us to save their lives, provoking an embarrassed scowl from Connal. Even his fellow prisoners look disgusted. While Saraid gives the man a lecture, I slip out and walk over to Mugain by the fire. She’s the one in charge of guarding the prisoners, apparently.

 

“It seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Executing them for cattle thievery? I mean, everybody does that. Couldn’t you let them go?”

 

“Child, child.” She smiles indulgently and gives me much the same lecture as Saraid’s, adding something about great events to come. She’s not many years older than me, but I let that pass. It may be that she understands the ways of the gods; I certainly don’t pretend to.

 

My companions emerge from the prison hut, and Connal announces that we should explore the village, starting with the smithy. Camlin raises an eyebrow, but says only, “I will consult with the chief while you do that.” He limps off to the southeast before anyone can respond. Connal hesitates briefly, then says, “Come on.” Saraid looks in the direction Camlin went, then turns to follow Connal. I trail behind.

 

Morgan the smith turns out to be an impressive fellow, hugely muscled and full of tantalizing bits of information. He has some gear to sell, but more important, he’s willing to buy from us any odd bits of stuff that we can find. My ears perk up at that. He mentions some scrolls in his hut that we might find interesting. Connal asks Saraid if she wouldn’t mind going to have a look at them. “Gladly!” she says, probably eager to escape the heat of the forge. I casually pick up a bar of iron and a cloak that nobody seems to care about, and follow her out. Connal stays for more talk.

 

Outside the smithy, we pause at the sound of raised voices from the other side of the village. “That’s Camlin.” says Saraid in mild alarm. Moments later, he stomps his way across the village green towards us.

 

He growls as he arrives, “These ignorant villagers wouldn’t let me pass. They have no idea... Where are you going?” We tell him. He snorts. “Doing the bidding of that pup? Still... scrolls. I should look at them.”

 

The scrolls in question contain detailed instructions for making a potion that aids in healing. Interesting, especially considering that I liberated some healing herbs from Mugain’s garden as I passed through. Camlin seems disappointed, but Connal is pleased when we meet back up and tell him. “Very useful! Which of you two is skilled in herbcraft?” They exchange glances.

 

Finally Camlin says, “My studies into the deeper mysteries have left me no time to waste on mere herb lore.” Saraid adds, “While herbcraft is undoubtedly a worthy area of knowledge, my studies, encompassing all of the spell circles, have obviously absorbed all of my attention.”

 

“Huh. Well, it’s not urgent, I suppose. One of you will surely remedy that in the near future, yes?” He looks from one to the other. Neither speaks. “...Anyway, there are a few more villagers that Morgan suggested we should visit.”

 

He leads us to the hut of Llyn, a hunter with some sensible advice and astonishing stories for us. He tells of rare magical beasts in this valley, drawn by whatever great events are to be taking place here. If we defeat them, he says, we can absorb their power somehow, with his help. It sounds like madness to me, but in this place, who knows what’s possible?

 

Then we meet Bituitus, a Roman of all wonders, living among the Brigantes as one of us. Connal is fascinated by his stories of fighting as an Empire soldier. Better yet, he has many useful skills that he’s willing to teach us—for a price, of course. “More gold.” mutters Camlin, who is less enthralled with tales of martial deeds.

 

Finally, we stop at the village bakery, where a young woman named Elara tells us some of her story as she packs up loaves and loaves of bread for us. The part about Boudicca is interesting, but my attention wanders as she shyly invites Connal to come back anytime, while sneaking admiring looks at his muscles. She’s not uncomely despite the scar on her face, and though she’s a few years older he doesn’t seem to mind the attention. This looks like going on for a while, so I take the opportunity to slip out, picking up a few unregarded bags of meal on my way. I’m stronger than I look.

 

A visit to every hut in the village—except for the guarded area in the southeast—and even a circuit outside the wall, yields several articles of clothing, a nice helmet, some food, and a small collection of saleable items. All of it fairly found or freely given. Almost all. The smith, unfortunately, is not interested in buying hammers, shovels, baskets, or several other likely-looking objects I picked up. Still, I leave with a tidy sum, to find my companions milling about near the cow pen.

 

“There you are,” says Connal. “Where have you...” His voice trails off as I hand him a cloak, and pass around some of the other items. The helmet I keep for myself, but I give my old one to Camlin. Connal studies me with narrowed eyes. “Where did you get these things?”

 

“Grateful and generous villagers.” Which is true, in some sense. Then I hand him my pouch of gold. He weighs it in his hand, looks at me for a long moment, and then gives it back.

 

“You hold on to it. You can be in charge of our finances. But the first thing we’ll do—”

 

“No, that’s enough,” interjects Camlin. “I don’t know where you got the idea that you were in command of this party, boy, but as the eldest and indisputably the most powerful—”

 

“I dispute that.” This from Saraid. Camlin stops dead, and turns to face her. Connal looks as if he wants to say something, but thinks better of it. I swing up onto the paddock fence to watch the show. I would try to hide my smirk, but no-one is looking at me anyway.

 

“You dispute...” Camlin's disbelief is evident. “Tell me, Saraid, have you mastered any circle to the highest level? As I have?”

 

Saraid turns a little pink, but stands her ground. “Your dedication is admirable, but tell me, have you mastered spells in every circle, as I have?”

 

“Feh! Trivial hearth magic.” He waves my old helmet around dismissively.

 

“Truly? You may not think so if faced with a hostile shade.”

 

“Divine fire will destroy shades well enough.”

 

She’s unimpressed. “Perhaps, if the shade is considerate enough to wait while you strike it two or three times. And what use will you be if we come to a locked door?”

 

He closes his eyes for a moment, and then speaks slowly and quietly, almost wearily. “There is certainly a place for the craft circle, and even for brute force if it comes to that, but I have spent years honing my mastery of the war and beast circles. There is no comparing that kind of power—”

 

“Yes, no doubt, but for all your honing, you don’t actually know any more spells in those circles than I do. Do you?” She folds her arms and looks at him with chin upraised.

 

“You... you know very well how difficult it is to find the most powerful rituals. They are rare, and many of them have been lost. But if we do find them here in this valley, I will be prepared to use them.” He lowers his bushy brows at her. “I suppose you think that you are best qualified to lead us?”

 

“No. This is a war band; it should be led by a warrior. Connal is young, but competent.” She steps closer to Camlin and holds his gaze. “It’s not a matter of who is the most powerful. Our holy mission demands that we all turn our talents to a common goal. It is for warriors to lead; it is for druids to give wise counsel.”

 

Camlin stares down at her for a moment, then turns to Connal. “And you? What have you to say?” The warrior faces him in a respectful posture.

 

“Sir, you’re right that nobody placed me in command. But it seems to me that it’s as the lady said—it’s a warrior’s place to take care of the day-to-day details of a war band. A druid has a higher calling and shouldn't be troubled with such mundane concerns.” He’s not as stupid as he looks.

 

Nobody asks me what I think.

 

Camlin strokes his whiskers, and looks from one of them to the other. “Feh. It’s not a burden I wanted, anyway.” He limps off to the other end of the paddock and glares fiercely at an innocent cow.

 

Connal takes a deep breath, and turns to the two of us. “...So, as I was saying, the first thing we’ll do is get Bituitous to teach us everything he can about bartering, so we can make the most of what we... find.” This last with a half smile in my direction.

 

And so, after one more stop, we were finally ready to take our first steps into a valley shrouded with enchantment, toward a destiny stranger than any of us could have imagined...

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