Prologue: The strange case of Jon Rhand
It was the two hundred and eighty seventh winter of the current time of miseries when Jon Rhand came from the Blackbriar Forest. Nobody, not even he, had known how long he had crossed through the undergrowth of those dark and foreboding woods, but his arrival changed the village of Oeliker forever. Iloridh saw him first, as she herded pigs back to their small pen behind the cottage she had once shared with her mother, now five winters deceased. As she saw him stumble and stagger through the thick mud that was the old Arnicke trail from the forest’s edge, she shivered. Perhaps, on that cold dawn where the grey blue light is almost painful to the eyes, it was simply winter's cold that made her shudder. She knew later, though, that it was something more, it was a deep sense that death had already claimed Jon Rhand, and death would not be denied. A silent village, unaccustomed to strangers and wary of them when they arrived, watched him as he trudged up the muddy track that served as a main thoroughfare, leaning on a stick to support his wiry frame and wrapped in a mud spattered cloak. Eventually, Jon Rhand had reached the wayfaring mast, the wooden pillar in the centre of most Arclandish villages that served as a focal point for the community and a signpost to other villages and towns in the region. He sat down at the base of the pillar, exhaling with exhaustion, his pallid fingers shaking as he took off his pack. One by one, villagers who had been peering at him from behind doors and shutters nervously came out of their houses and formed an orderly semicircle around him, as he slowly drifted into unconsciousness. After a brief exchange of nervous glances and mutterings, as the innate desire of all Arclandish peasant folk to let distressed strangers be someone else’s problem wrestled with the basic morality that most of them shared, finally someone spoke.
“Call old Anton,” said Aldman Jorth, whose swine had been startled by Jon Rhand first as he emerged from the forests, “...he’ll know what to do.”
One of Jorth’s sons, Pyter, was sent to find Anton, who at the age of seventy one and half blind, was the closest thing Oeliker had to some kind of authority figure. For reasons that were unclear to most Oerlikerans, he lived in a small shack on the edge of the forest, outside the palisade wall that defined the village, and each year he engaged with the village folk less and less. However, upon hearing that a stranger had emerged from the forest, he quickly roused from his bed, put on his heavy sheepskin fur and boots and made his way to the wayfaring mast. Clutching an old clay pipe, he forced his way through the crowd and knelt by the side of Jon Rhand. A range of possibilities all sprang to his mind as he scrutinised the unconscious man, and none of them good. He glanced up at the crowd and waved them away with his hand.
“You all tend to your business now, go on, away with you,” he snapped. He then turned to Jorth and in a low, grave voice instructed him on what to do next.
“Jorth, get those big strong lads of yours and move this man, take him to your barn and keep him there til he wakes, then call this lot,” he gesticulated towards the villagers, “...into the old tithe house at sun down, there’s a few things they need to hear and hopefully remember.”
Jorth, who was neither the most intelligent member of the community, nor the most stupid, detected a tone in Anton’s voice which indicated that the old man needed to be obeyed promptly, as he had perceived dangers that were far beyond the comprehension of his peers. By the time Jon Rhand had stumbled across it, Oerliker had stood on the edges of the great Blackbriar forest for over a thousand years. It had not grown much in size for most of that time, and during times of dearth and pestilence, it had shrunk considerably, even being abandoned for a decade here and there. Life for the three or four hundred souls who lived there was hard but mercifully predictable, governed by the seasons mainly and the price that Oerliker hogs could fetch in larger market towns like Damerfrae, just a day’s ride away. There were several villages like Oerliker, nestled on the edge of the forest where there was ample forage for pigs, firewood and fresh water from the springs that flowed from its heart. Oerlikers had last been ruled by anyone directly when the Arc empire, now 1,300 years in its grave, declared its dominion over all the lands bordering the Greater Arc Sea, known by their inhabitants as the Arclands. In the anarchy that followed, as territory ceaselessly changed hands for generations, the small and irrelevant places of the world, like Oerliker, continued in a manner much as they ever had done, and for the most part were left alone. Being on the edge of the Blackbriar Forest was also highly advantageous for the village folk, as it kept larger and more predatory fiefdoms at bay. Few Oerlikers went more than a short walk into the Blackbriar, the pigs were astute enough to give it a wide berth, and there were innumerable stories about villagers over the years who had strayed too far into its depths. There were the perennial tales that were repeated year in, year out of the boy who was chased into the woods by a gang of village bullies, called Harling Griskin, and who was never seen again. Everyone had a different version of the Harling Griskin story, which featured two key features. The first was that for years, other children would sometimes hear Harling’s cries on the breeze as they played on the edge of the forest, pleading for someone to venture deeper into the woods to find him. The second aspect of the story had the most profound effect on younger listeners, it was the claim that sometimes, on the darkest nights, young Harling would come back to the village looking for other children to take with him back to the forest. Poor Harling was all alone in the darkest recesses of the Blackbriar and longed for playmates. Then there was the story of the old woodcutter Hayke. In most tellings of this particular tale Hayke was a mean spirited old drunkard who probably deserved what happened to him, and the vengeful forest inadvertently was presented to listeners in an oddly favourable light. The purpose behind this tale was purely cautionary, and a reminder to mere mortals to resist the power of their own vanity. Old Hayke would curse and swear when he heard the suspicions of the village folk. He would laugh and mock when they talked of the Blackbriar Folk with sharp red eyes and wicked smiles. He would rise at dawn and walk to the forest’s edge and spit on the ground each day, to make the point to his fellow villagers, and to the forest itself that he was not afraid. Some Oerliker children of the more perceptive persuasion would observe that Hayke was more afraid than anyone, and the very act of spitting showed that he was well aware of a presence that watched from the forest’s edge. One dawn he rose and went for his morning spit, but as he walked to the edge of the forest, the trees themselves moved and shifted around him, until he became lost within the thicket. Nobody knew what happened to Old Hayke for many years, until one day a swineherd found his likeness carved into a tree. The face of the old man seemed desperate and terrified and his hands were raised, fingers curled, as if trying to claw his way out of the tree itself from the inside. Finally, there was the story of Mershe Maur, the girl of a hundred and one years. Mershe was a merchant’s daughter who had been sent to live in Oerliker by her wealthy father, in order to teach her the value of hard work. She lived with her uncle, a poor woodcutter and was sent to pick up sticks for the fire every morning; she missed her old life in her father’s fine townhouse where servants attended to her every need. Poor Mershe wept bitterly every morning and prayed to the Keeper that she would be set free from her torment and allowed to go home. Her only company was her uncle’s hunting dog Gauro, and there were days where Mershe feared she might die of loneliness and despair. It was not the Keeper, but the forest, that answered her prayers, but not in the way that she had hoped. One dawn, the forest took her and Gauro as they wandered at its edge. All that was found by the villagers sent out to search for her was bundle of sticks, and as the years passed Mershe’s name became yet another footnote in the tormented history of the forest and its mortal neighbours. When Mershe emerged from the woods, one hundred and one years later, her long dark hair had become white as snow and her dog was gone. Her eyes, once dark brown, were a brilliant blue and all she surveyed seemed to be grey and cold to her. Her voice had gone, left behind in the forest and as she looked to her left and her right, other children, who looked exactly the same as her, also emerged from the woods. Each had been taken by the forest centuries apart and kept by it for reasons the trees themselves only knew. Each had left their voices behind and a part of their very spirit. Mershe and her new friends learned they were children for who time had no more meaning and that everything they had ever known had died decades or even centuries ago. After several hours of deliberation, it is said that they made their way to the Arching Mountains, never to return. These, of course, were just stories, cautionary tales designed to explain to those who lived closest to the forest that it must never be traversed. It was precisely these stories that made the arrival of Jon Rhand all the more troubling for the people of Oerliker and for Old Anton in particular.
Nobody liked disturbing Anton, in fact it was fair to say that few people actually liked Anton at all, he had lived on the edge of the village alone since his wife died some fifteen years earlier, and other than tending to some goats and visiting her grave, there was little else that seemed to occupy his time. As a modestly educated and learned man, surrounded by those with little or no education (other than that which working the land brought them, which Anton recognised was not inconsiderable), he was the subject of regular requests for his insight and advice. Part of his ill temper was based in an overall exasperation at his neighbours, who were willing to delegate any decision to him if they could, irrespective of whether or not they could take decisions themselves. This was tempered by a frank understanding of the limitations of Oerlikers and their capacity for naivety and poor judgement. It was with this in mind that he wanted to gather as many of them together as possible tonight before their mouths had the chance to cause catastrophic and irrevocable damage. Whoever the stranger who had arrived in their village was, his arrival was an ill portent; strangers rarely brought blessings with them. It was with this in mind that he decided to follow Jorth and his sons to the old hay barn they owned close to Oerliker’s small communal orchard. He hoped the man would awaken or show some degree of semi consciousness in order to find out who he was, and more importantly where he came from. Anton had an irritating habit of setting foot, uninvited, into the homes and smallholdings of his neighbours. As a rule, the better one knew Anton, the more likely he was to wander unannounced through the door and sit himself down by the hearth. Jorth was well acquainted with the old man, having spent years at his beck and call. This morning was like countless other visits to Jorth’s property, which consisted of his small cottage and the hay barn. Anton waited what he considered to be a respectful few moments as Jorth’s sons laid the man down and placed his mud spattered cloak over him, before entering the barn and waving away the three boys with a dismissive gesticulation. The entirety of Jorth’s family were accustomed to Anton’s rudeness and Jorth’s sons shrugged and left the old man with the unconscious visitor. Anton had come to the conclusion in his youth that manners were luxuries and were for the most part the preserve of the idle rich. In the many years he had lived on the edge of Oerliker, he had rarely had use for them and his more direct approach invariably had the desired effect. He did not have any great desire to be liked or any need to be liked. His intemperate manner was the product not of hatred however, but of fear, a fear that others were as incapable as he suspected they were, and if they were not shooed away, they would simply get in his way and cause havoc as a result. A childhood of protecting younger siblings from the violent predations of a drunken father armed with a thick leather belt had left Anton with the firm conviction that the only person he could rely on was himself. His overbearing and dismissive attitude and his abrasive manner were informed by the fact that he was the best educated and knowledgeable person in the village by some distance. After many years, he had learned to listen closely to the instinct that spoke to him now, the instinct that told him with an ever greater sense of urgency that the man who had arrived in the village this morning spelled trouble for everyone. There was only one place he was likely to have walked from, and if Anton could confirm this suspicion, they would need to get rid of their guest as quickly as possible, and erase his arrival amongst them from the village’s collective memory.
As a young man, Anton had been an apprentice tanner, learning from his master the secrets of creating supple leather from pigskin. He had lacked the care and attention to detail that it required to make leather overcoats and jerkins, but his master, an unduly patient and supportive old man called Lleros had found another use for him. Anton had been a gifted trader, selling the produce of the small tannery, which now stood derelict some twenty miles from Oerliker. He had travelled across the wildlands to the west of the Blackbriar, following the markets and festivals that happened throughout the long Arclandish summer. Anton, with some justification, looked back on the years where he rode a cart across the wildlands plying his trade, free from Lleros’s scrutiny, sleeping in haylofts and drinking excessively as some of the happiest times of his life. They were an invaluable education too, an education of glances, he called it. His best teachers were the hardest ones to spot but once every so often he caught a glimpse. There had been the dark early winter’s afternoon as his old mare pulled the cart up the waterlogged and potholed road by Nyberen, the small fishing town on the River Nye when he looked up and saw a man stood at the small hillock where the road forked, the left hand road taking travellers such as Anton all the way to Nyberen’s small dock. Arclanders knew better than to stand where the road forked, they were far from being the most superstitious people in Aestis, but still, a residual fear of mocking chance coursed through Arcish culture. It was widely believed by Arclanders that junctions brought bad luck, and loitering at crossroads was inviting disaster. This fellow had not such concerns, he sat on the wet grass, wrapped in a heavy travel cloak, and momentarily looked up at Anton as he rode past. Anton, a naive tanner’s apprentice cum trader, allowed himself to return the man’s gaze, and before he broke away he had the distinct impression that he had looked into some great and unknowable emptiness. After that he saw people like the ‘man at the fork’ as he came to call the stranger once or twice over the years, each with the same unmistakable emptiness behind their eyes, each seeming to be waiting for something, but looking at nothing. They were, in Anton’s imagining, the truest form of stranger, men and women who were unknowable. Once at a market fair in the hilltop town of Golvarke, nearly ten years after the man at the fork, he spied one of them, a woman with short dark hair, sat at a wooden table close to the town’s common. He stood a dozen paces to her left and felt that he had observed her for hours, though it must have only been a matter of moments. It only took him a moment to recall the man at the fork from a decade earlier, and a moment more to connect the two.
“I shouldn't stare too long, “ a voice behind him had softly whispered. Anton turned suddenly and saw and older man with a round face and a mop of unruly grey hair.
“I’ve seen them too,” the stranger smiled, “...and they come and go as they please, never chosen to ask why, happy just to wait until they go again.”
Anton smiled nervously, finding the man slightly more unnerving than the stranger in their midst. Throughout his many journeys across the region, before he finally parted company from Lleros shortly before he died, Anton was sure he saw fork-in-the-road-people another three times and heard periodic talk of strange folk in ale houses and taverns, in farms and hamlets on his routes. He came to the conclusion that he, as an intelligent and curious man had no need to know any more about the strangers who existed at the periphery of his world, who appeared in glances, and had eyes that stared, but did not see. As Anton knelt down in the straw and the dirt of Jorth’s barn, he looked at Jon Rhand’s face, his eyes crawling over every pore, every line, the tautness at the corners of his mouth, the fall of his lank, dark hair over his brow. He could safely say that if anyone in Oerliker was an expert in strangers, it was he, and armed with the experience of decades of wandering and meeting people both unusual and mundane made his judgement count for something.
“So you one of them?” he murmured, “...no, don’t think you are. Don’t think you’d be lying here if you were. I’ll bet you’re acquainted though.”
Anton shook his head, wondering what it was he had expected, and half tutted at himself. With that, he got up and dusted the straw from his knees and called to Jorth.
“Feed him when he wakes and send a boy to come and get me, and remember to gather the folk later.”
On the morning that Jon Rhand came from the forest, Iloridh Magrayne had woken early, unable to sleep, her dreams a restless collage of tumbling thoughts, the product of an unquiet mind. In the small cottage that she rented from Squire Edmane Palfer, a well meaning but ultimately ineffectual landlord, whose tenants neither feared nor respected. Iloridh, whose education in the relationship between squires and commonfolk had been instilled into her by her late mother, was respectful to a fault. Whilst the other tenants on Edmane’s land, which encompassed half the village, treated him with barely concealed contempt, she was the very model of lower Vannic etiquette and she also felt sorry for him; her neighbours saw their own hostility and their reluctance to promptly pay rent as a sign of their own agency and power. Iloridh saw something in Edmane, the son of Baron Talurinde Palfer, the type of landlord that villagers knew never to cross. It was the sadness of a man desperate to be respected and liked; those sorts of longings, she knew, were almost always hidden away. It was Edmane she resolved to see after Jon Rhand staggered from the Blackbriar; quite why she took it upon herself to inform him, she didn’t immediately know. It was only later that she realised she was trying to help Edmane, as the insufferable and overbearing Anton, a man who commanded far greater respect in the village than the Squire, would inevitably seize control of the situation. Once her pigs had been left to forage, she returned to her cottage, and donned her most prized possession, a thick woolen travelling cloak and left along the Aserpath, a snaking road that skirted the edge of the forest northwards for several miles, finishing at the seat of the Palfer family, Asermand Keep. A generation ago, nobody from Oerliker would have dared to take the journey to Asermand, the Palfer lords knew how to remind their subjects of their place with snarling hunting dogs and guards. The hated ‘Palfermen’, local sadists and drunks who wore the family’s livery, would prowl the lands within ten miles of the keep, terrorising and intimidating lone travellers until everyone was quite clear who was in charge of the area. Whilst Oerliker was largely left to its own devices and certainly no one from the Palfer dynasty had ever been bothered to intervene in the affairs of village life, this was all contingent on rents being paid on time. With the lands that Oerliker occupied now belonging to Edmane, life for the villagers was considerably easier. For years, much to the disgust of the Palfer family elders, villagers had been permitted to journey to Asermand in order to petition squire Edmane, who could receive whomsoever he wished. Whilst always ineffectual, there was at least some attempt by Edmane periodically to redress bitter disputes over land rights, stolen cattle or the watering of beer in local hostelries. This, suspected Iloridh , was why his father, the Baron, had stepped aside from active governance of the Palfer lands and allowed Edmane to take up the role instead. Worn down by the everyday demands of the people, Edmane would never find the time to engage in the Palfer family tradition of bloodthirsty usurpation. The road to the keep flooded in the late summer rains, but in winter its muddy surface froze as hard as granite. Iloridh walked for hours in the shadow of the Blackbriar Forest on her right hand side, waiting for the sun to rise over the trees and to lift her out of the endless gloom and chill that hung over the road. She, like everyone she knew in Oerliker, practiced what her mother had called the ‘Blackbriar stare’, as she walked towards the keep, she looked ahead always ignoring the sound of a bird call, the snapping of twigs or the rustling of leaves. Perhaps it was merely superstition, but to villagers raised on stories of vanished children, and who lived within the shadow of a wall of foreboding thicket, the fear of the Blackbriar was very real and immediate. Staring into its darkest recesses was all but inviting tragedy.