I had trouble sleeping that night, my mind refusing to quiet no matter what I tried. I finally gave in and got up a couple of hours before sunrise. Moving as quietly as I could to avoid waking Vardon, I collected a lamp and gathered up a few things to use as offerings, pulled my hood on over my head and shoulders to ward off the chill, and then crept down the stairs and out of the workshop.
The night was clear and very cold, and the evening’s winds had died down to nothing, leaving the air still and silent. The sound of my footsteps on the cobbles seemed to echo down the streets as I headed to the eastern edge of town. My breath hung in the air in clouds, and I kept the hand that wasn’t holding the lantern tucked up under the edge of my hood to keep the tips of my fingers from freezing.
I didn’t have far to walk, at least not to my first stop. My mother had told me once that when she’d been young, the barrow had been outside the borders of Cantlay Town. Now, it was bordered on one side by a grain store and on two more sides by workmen’s cottages, small thatch roofed timber and clay buildings that came right up to the low, rough hedge of juniper bushes that surrounded the barrow grounds. I rounded the corner of one of the cottages and stepped through a thin point in the hedge, making sure the bushes closed back up behind my legs.
At first glance, the barrow might be taken for an oddly tall, unusually round hill, a grassy dome in the middle of a hedged-in grassy field, maybe two dozen paces across, spanning half the width of the field itself. Shin-high stones surrounded the hill at regular points, and on the barrow’s eastern side, facing away from the town and toward the hills that marked the edge of Lord Carson’s domain, three massive stones formed a doorway into the mound, with stairs leading downward and a trickle of smoke leaking up into the sky from the top edge of the doorway.
I set down my lantern, and then ducked under the stone lintel and went down the short staircase, down into the inner chamber. The air inside the barrow was thick and smoky, warm compared to the cold outside, warm enough to make me sweat under my hood.
The inside of the barrow was a low chamber, with two side walls and the ceiling each made up of a massive slab of rough-hewn granite. The floor and remaining walls were stone-lined as well, in rough blocks of uneven sizes fit close with no mortar between them. The middle of the floor held a shallow circular pit, lined with the same uneven stone. If the cantor had been conducting a ceremony or an interment, there would have been a large fire in the pit, making the interior of the barrow sweltering hot. Right now, though, there was only a dusting of ash, and the only fire burning was in a small ceramic brazier across the floor from the entrance, just below the lowest of the interment platforms.
The platforms ran all around the walls of the barrow chamber. The lowest was a series of stone slabs a hands’ span taller than the floor, the first of three tiers leading up to the walls like steps. Above those, on the wall above the brazier, pegs had been hammered in between gaps in the rocks and boards set upon them, making a series of wooden shelves that ran nearly all the way up to the ceiling.
Each and every bit of space on the shelves and platforms, save a few gaps on the topmost board, was filled with hundreds and hundreds of urns, in all sizes and shapes and colors of clay. Each was filled with the ashes of someone who had lived in Cantlay Town, from the present all the way back before there was a Cantlay Town or even a Duchy of Cantlay here. Some had grown smaller over the years, as pinches of their ashes were used by the cantors in rituals or in the making of protective talismans, their urns replaced by ones more appropriately sized to the remaining remains; many of the urns on the lowest, oldest platform were little bigger than pepper pots. But they were all here, all of my ancestors and the ancestors of everyone in Cantlay. Except for Vardon, of course.
I knelt before the brazier. The unburnt bits of the offerings of others littered the edges of the clay vessel. I hadn’t been the only one to think of coming here tonight. Wordlessly, one by one, I began casting my offerings into the little fire. Asking favors of the ancestors wasn’t allowed, and the cantor said their ghosts wouldn’t understand your questions if you did ask, but the offerings you gave them could remind them of what was important; a crust of bread to make them feel welcome in your life, a lizard scale to represent protection, a reed that had touched your threshold to ask them to bring you back home.
I burned each of these, as well as a feather and a short strip of leather for a fast and a safe journey, respectively, and then stood and made my way back up the steps. The cantor passed me as I came back out into the night air. She was a rail thin woman a few years younger than my mother, with dark hair and a narrow face with dark, piercing eyes. She nodded to me, and then ducked around me and headed down into the barrow, her book of songs for the dead under one arm and a small bundle of wood for the fire under the other. I realized that though she had been the cantor in Cantlay as long as I could remember, I had never learned her name. Not that I could ask it of her; her voice was for the dead and them alone. I wondered if anyone in town knew it.
I stepped back out through the hedge and onto the cobblestones. Briefly, I considered making this the end of my errand, considered just walking back to the workshop and finishing my packing, but after a moment I shook my head and continued walking to the east, past the edge of the town, and up the road into the forested hills. If I was going to war, I told myself, I’d want all the help I could get.
There was, technically, no trail from the road to the clearing. It was bad fortune to go there, most said, and bad fortune to follow the same path in and out of the place or to follow another man’s path to get there or back. In practice, this meant that there were a dozen small trails all leading from a hundred pace long stretch of the road where it curved around the clearing, each headed straight away from the roadway and all converging just before the clearing’s edge.
It had taken me more than an hour to reach the trails and a little under half that to reach the edge of the clearing itself. The sky was beginning to lighten between the bare branches above me, and across the clearing and through the woods beyond I could just see the sun beginning to rise behind the crest of the hill above, bathing the trees in red-gold light, like the embers of a roaring fire.
I paused for a moment to steady my nerves, and then entered the clearing.
After the barrow, the clearing seemed simple and unimposing. It was just a clearing, a place in the forest where there were no trees, with a large flat rock in more or less the center. Above, the sky was open and clear, but the air here felt more oppressively heavy than even the still, smothering heat of the barrow. The tall grass was disturbed in a few places, in a way that suggested paths toward and away from the rock; it appeared I wasn’t the first to visit this place since Lord Carson’s herald had come to town, either.
I walked into the clearing, taking care not to cross any of the other paths, and approached the stone. A few offerings were already in place on the rock. There were no symbolic offerings to the forest spirits. Unlike the ancestors, the forest spirits could be bargained with directly, after a fashion, but they only accepted one kind of offering: meat and milk. One of the other visitors had brought a little bottle of cream to place on the stone. The rest had done as I had, and used small pieces of cheese. I placed mine on a clear spot on the surface of the stone, alongside a short length of smoked sausage.
“Spirits of the forest,” I said, “I’ve come to bargain with you.” Common wisdom said that drawing the attention of the forest spirits in any way was certain to bring trouble upon you, and that seeking them out directly was an invitation for mischief at best and ruin at worst. Still, it seemed that for every tale of woe the forest spirits played a part in, there was another in which they brought fortune or rescue from dire peril.
I began my request. My voice wavered a little, but I did not pause or stumble. I’d had the whole of the hour-long walk up here to consider my wording. “I go now to become a soldier. I ask that you ensure my good fortune on the battlefield, and that you protect my name and my person from dishonor or cowardice in battle. I also ask that I share in the fortune and glory of my fellow soldiers, if there is fortune or glory to be had.”
Here I did pause a little, but I knew I had to continue. Any request that you made of the forest spirits might or might not come true, but in all the stories, whenever any spoke to the spirits with a dark or secret desire in their heart that they tried to conceal, the spirits would inevitably come to know it and would make it come to pass in the worst possible manner. “I ask for protection and comfort for Thon, my brother, and for Cily, my sister, but for my father and mother, Galvyn and Saine Smith, and for Oskar Smith, my father’s apprentice, I ask for misfortune, strife and embarrassment.”
A sudden gust of wind rushed in through the trees, and from the tree line at the far side of the clearing a flock of wood grouse burst out into the air, shooting up and out of the clearing. Surprised, I leapt up, and before I was even aware exactly what I was doing I ran out of the clearing, stumbling and scrabbling through the tall grass.
I did not stop, or even slow my pace, until I had left the forest trails and was back on the road toward town. Even then, I found myself looking back over my shoulder every few minutes, and even when I’d left the forest entirely and my feet were back on city cobblestones, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched or followed, that someone, or some thing, had their eye on me.