Prologue: The Secret Book of Moolstery
Book One in The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear's Son
Revised 12 June 2014
“The wolves are attacking! The wolves are attacking!”
Two hooded and cloaked figures trudge slowly northward following the rough path as it wound its way through the shrouded and silent landscape. The damp mists closed in more densely around them making it difficult to see the path more than a few feet ahead. The two figures keep their heads bowed and their cloaks pulled tightly around their shoulders.
For most of the day they had lay hidden among the ragged outcrops and bracken. Their bones were stiff with cold and they had eaten nothing all day. They had heard the eerie cries “The wolves are attacking!” echoing off the rocks while they kept as still as the silent standing stones. They had waited until darkness before continuing on their northward trek across the rugged terrain, climbing higher and higher. For several days they slowly made their way to the remote Noorderlands hoping that they had not seen by prying eyes.
The two cloaked figures move silently as ghosts. They listen for any sound that might reach them through the heavy mists. They did not want to be seen, or heard, by any creature, living or dead. High above the clouds a small brown wren flapped its wings against the blackness. It glided whenever possible to ease its tired wings. The bird flew westward, with steady determination, over the Highlands, The Minch, The Outer Islands, and beyond. Its journey had begun farther east in the mysterious mountains called the Cairngorms. The bird's bright eyes darted to the left and right. From such a great height the rocky islands below lay silent as grey ghosts with their granite cliffs braced against the sea's relentlessly pounding waves. Suddenly, without warning a large black raven screamed above, swooped down, and attempted to seize the small bird. But the wren was too quick. It veered sharply and felt a whoosh of wind as it narrowly escaped the raven’s sharp claws. The raven flapped its great, black wings and in pursuit of the small bird. This time its sharp claws grazed the little bird and several tiny brown feathers fluttered down to the waters below. As the raven prepared itself for another attack the wren darted out of sight into a thick white cloud. It was hidden from its attacker.
After a thousand wing beats instinct told the wren that the raven had given up its pursuit.
Far below the waters surged and plunged in a rhythmic dance with the moon. The bird flew on for another hour tirelessly scanning the waters below. At last, in the distance, it spied its destination---The Islands on the Edge. The bird ducked its head and began its swift descent. The tiny bird dropped lower in the sky and felt the white mists cling to its feathers. As though pulled by a magnet, the bird flew unerringly through the veiled mists. The mists hid the night sky. The bird could no longer see the stars or feel the cool, fresh air on its feathers. Out of the mists, two hooded figures suddenly appeared. The tiny bird veered sharply to the left to avoid smashing into them. It darted up and over a rough-hewn solitary standing stone. In the blink of an eye the bird was gone, unseen by the two figures as they carefully picked their way across the slippery stones that lined the narrow path. The larger figure glances up. Just ahead, a solitary standing stone loomed in front of them. He sees the menhir; gnarled and weathered, standing alone, holding its breath. Waiting. The ancient stone towers over them, more than twice their height. Wisps of lichen cling to it like bits of thin, ragged beard. The stone neither moved nor shrank from the cloaked figures as they approach. It stood, as it had always stood, silent and watching. Forever watching. And waiting.
"We're almost there," said the man. "Can you keep walking? Just a few more steps now."
The man's voice was husky and raw with exhaustion. His thick arm cradled the smaller figure protectively as his hood slid off his head. His hair was a deep, burnt auburn, but in the dampness it glistened black and was plastered against his forehead. The mists had formed droplets on his beard and moustache. The burly man squinted hard through the whiteness in order to gauge how many steps it would take to reach the stone. He gazed with both tenderness and concern at the woman beside him, whose head barely reached his chest.
"Hanne, just a few more steps," he said urgently in a hoarse whisper.
Hanne cried out as her feet slipped on the wet ground. He pulled her closer to him and she slumped against him. "Can you make it?" he asked again. “We must reach the stone and then you can rest.” The large man half pushed, half carried her toward the waiting stone. "I'm fine," she said in a low whisper. "I don't think they have followed us this far." She looked around her as she said this, but was unable to see anything through the unyielding mists. The clinging dampness had flattened her long black hair against her face and neck like strands of a spider’s delicate web. She bent her head lower and pulled the soddened cloak tighter around her, being careful not to disturb the tiny sleeping bundle hidden beneath her cloak. She shivered in the cold and coughed softly. Brom Powys took a deep breath and urged her forward. They stopped within an arm’s length from the stone. Tentatively, they stepped closer to the stone then quietly stepped into the stone’s breath.
Brom regretted that he had never mastered the skill of directing a stone’s energy. He and Hanne knew that the stone would not hold its breath for long. The brief moment of peace and warmth was a great relief to the exhausted pair. They were making this desperate journey in response to the mysterious message that they had received. Their lives depended on reaching their destination as quickly as possible.
In the calm of the stone's breath, Brom looked down at his wife's drawn face. Her skin was taut; her cheeks were pale as ash. He stroked her cheek gently with his large, paw-like hand.
"We're almost to the border of the Noorderlands," he said. "It can't be much farther." The stone shivered slightly and Brom felt it take a breath. Once more the white mists closed in around them. Brom and Hanne had reached the rugged highlands in Moel Weorpe the previous day. They hid among the grey crags or in the damp scrub whenever they heard anyone close by. The journey northward had not been an easy one. It had rained for three days and the ground was soaked and treacherous. They were numb with cold and exhaustion. Their last remaining hope was to reach the Noorderlands and find the skeely-wife, Hennock Pyn.
Again Brom urged his wife forward. His leatherclad feet were wet and cold. He had no feeling in his toes. They scrambled over rocks and tussocky hillocks, their fingers raw and bleeding, climbing higher with each step.
Suddenly a heart-wrenching wail pierced the mists. Brom and Hanne stopped, daring not to move, nor make any sound at all. They glanced at one another and in fear began to climb more quickly over the wet rocks in order to put as much distance between themselves and the blood-curdling cry as possible.
In her head Hanne could hear the anguished words “The wolves are attacking! The wolves are attacking!”
The Faarlanders, the Mad Marauders, Wolves of the Sea, had broken through the mists. Hanne stumbled over a twisted root and nearly fell to the ground. In an instant, Brom's bear-like hands tugged her back to her feet and steadied her.
"We must keep moving," he said in an urgent whisper. "Hanne, we must. We must be almost there."
Hanne nodded, checked the bundle beneath her cloak to make certain it was safe and unhurt, and pulled herself up higher onto the treacherous crags. Her nose was close enough so that she could smell the peaty earth and mosses that crumbled in her face as she climbed.
They knew that the Noorderlands lay somewhere ahead of them. And it was in this remote corner of Eyr where they would find the skeely-wife whom they were seeking. Hennock Pyn’s bothy was not going to be easy to find. Neither Brom nor Hanne knew the exact location of her bothy. It would be like searching for a tiny herring in the vast sea. The message they had received had read: "Seek Hennock Pyn, the skeely-wife, in the Noorderlands."
"Hanne, do you have any idea where the bothy is or what it looks like?" Brom asked. His voice words came rasping from his lips as he gasped for breath. "I can't see anything in this mist."
Hanne peered from beneath her hood and looked about her. She had never been this far north. The landscape was harsh and bleak with steep rocky ridges and deep hidden bogs. In the mists everything looked strange and eerie, nothing looked familiar. She could see no distinguishing landmarks. Rocks, stones, bracken all looked the same here.
Hanne knew that secrecy and the ability to not be seen were a skeely-wife's most powerful traits. It was not easy to find a well-hidden bothy. A skeely-wife’s bothy looked like a small stony hillock and blended seamlessly into the landscape.
“This way, I think,” said Hanne.
She could only follow her intuition. How would she recognize the skeely-wife’s bothy?
"Brom, I'm not certain which way to go," said Hanne in a trembling voice.
Brom stared at her and said nothing. They had begun their desperate journey with little hope of not being caught before they reached the hidden bothy. They had no idea where it stood. "We must walk faster," Brom said. "Someone is close by." In the distance they heard the pounding of the sea against the rocks far below, muffled by the mists. The sea was never far away on the islands.
Brom leapt to her and stomped his foot down hard on the sinewy wrist of the clawlike hand gripping Hanne's ankle. The thin, grasping hand released its grip on Hanne's ankle and was yanked back into its dank hole beneath the stones. They heard a soft wailing somewhere deep beneath the ground.
"Hanne, are you all right?" Brom asked. Hanne nodded. Her ankle throbbed and burned with pain. She felt beneath her cloak to make sure that the sleeping bundle was unharmed. Brom dragged her away from the hidden hole, a weem. At that moment a thin sliver of pale light glimmered a short distance ahead.
"Och! Thoo must come this way noo," cried a rasping voice through the mists.
Brom and Hanne clambered over the stones toward the beckoning light. They knew that reaching the light was their only hope against the unseen menace. From beneath Hanne’s cloak a baby’s plaintive cry filled the air. Behind them they heard a scrabbling, shuffling noise. Brom smelled a foul stench and felt deathly cold fingers brush the back of his neck. He pushed Hanne forward more urgently. The rank stench of decay and filth engulfed him. He felt his stomach churn as they stumbled toward the light.
The thin sliver of light came from an opening in the side of a grassy hillock. It was a bothy. Its hidden door was open and a tiny hunched figure holding a small horn lantern furiously beckoned them inside.
Brom and Hanne rushed to the welcoming light. As Brom pushed Hanne toward the small figure standing in the low doorway he felt an ironlike hand grab him from behind. Slimy, death-like fingers clawed at his bare skin.
“Hanne, run!” cried Brom.
Hanne ran as fast as she could, stumbling and nearly falling again before reaching the bothy. "Be gone!” shouted a small figure standing bedside them. “Be gone and take thooself back to the Fens where thoo belongs. Thoo dost not eat this night,"
In an instant the creature crumpled to the ground.
The tiny woman held her lantern high, its light fell on the pitiful creature that lay moaning on the ground. A wraith-like man was sprawled on the ground clothed in nothing but rags. His face was contorted in pain and his mouth moved soundlessly. The blackened teeth oozed blood and grime over his chin. Brom was most shocked by the man’s eyes. They were hollow, blank, staring eyes that saw everything and saw nothing. “Be gone. Thoo does not eat this night,” the skeely-wife said again. “Back to your hole and trouble us no more,” she said more gently. With that, Hennock Pyn took Brom by the arm and led him to the waiting bothy. She was a tiny thing next to the huge, hulking height of the man. Once inside, the heavy wooden door was quickly shut and bolted. Brom and Hanne heard a hollow howl rent the mists. The door was shut tight behind them blocking the mists, the night, and the fearsome danger that had nearly overtaken them. Hennock Pyn poked Brom in the back and urged him and Hanne forward along the low passage. Neither Brom nor Hanne could stand upright in the low passage. They ducked their heads and moved as quickly as their tired legs would carry them. The passage was stone-built and ended in a small circular chamber where a smoky peat fire burned low on a central hearthstone. It took their eyes a moment to adjust to the smoky dim light in the chamber. The only light came from the low burning fire and the horn lantern that the skeely-wife had hung on a peg in the wall. Deep shadows hid the recesses and corners so that it was difficult to see exactly how large the room was. Overlapping stones formed the roof of the bothy and rose over their heads high enough so that they could stand upright. Brom's head nearly brushed the ceiling. "Sit doon," said the skeely-wife behind them. "Thoo is safe noo. Noo'thin’ can enter this bothy uninvited." “What was that? Who was that?” Brom asked, staring in astonishment at the skeely-wife. “Och, the puir soul is but a broken man, a lost soul,” said the skeely-wife. “Let’s no more spaek of him this night. There is peril enough wi’out him troublin’ yer own soul.
Brom and Hanne collapsed in exhaustion on a low stone settle against the wall. The wall felt strangely warm. Not damp. Not chilled. The settle was strewn with soft furs and thickly woven blankets. They watched the skeely-wife as she added peats to the fire and gave it a good poke. Beneath Hanne’s wet cloak came a soft crying. The skeely-wife turned and stared at the cloak, but said nothing.
She was gnarled and bent as an old willow root. The skeely-wife was not very tall, half as tall as Hanne, and was dressed in homespun greens and greys. Around her shoulders she wore a spidery black joop. The hands that poked out of the long black sleeves were large and leathery, very much like a mole’s oversized forepaws. Her wizened face was papery and creased with hundreds of tiny wrinkles, but her black eyes shone brightly beneath her heavy brow. Two long, thin white braids hung nearly to the floor from underneath a soft grey curving cap. Brom and Hanne thought she must be the oldest person they had ever seen. They saw that she was a trow-wife. Trow-wifes were rarely seen in the islands any more. But, in the Noorderlands and Noord Eyris they knew that encounters sometimes took place. "Are you Hennock Pyn?" Brom asked as he wiped the blood off his face with the back of his hand and tried not to stare at the odd crooked figure. The skeely-wife dipped a square of linen in the water bucket and handed it to Brom. "I be me," said the skeely-wife. "Who else might me be? An' it be meself that thoo were seeking this night." “Well-come to Henwoodie,” she said, gesturing around the small bothy. The skeely-wife spoke with the peculiar deep lilting accent of her kind. Her words were odd, but her voice was not unpleasant. It was an ancient voice. If stones could speak this would be the sound of their voices. Brom and Hanne breathed more easily. They were safe. They were warm. And they had found Hennock Pyn. To their great relief Hennock Pyn smiled and her face split into a thousand deep creases. "Thoo has done weel to have come so far on this dark, dark night. An' thoo has not stepped a moment too sooner the late," said the skeely-wife. "It was you, then, who sent the message," Hanne said quietly, brushing her wet hair from her face. "Och, no, me girleen," replied Hennock Pyn. "'Twas no meself that sent any message. But it was meself who be watching for thoo this night." Brom and Hanne exchanged worried glances as the skeely-wife bustled briskly around the cramped room. "He comes tha sooner then," she continued, poking the fire with a long iron rod. "Who is coming?" Brom asked anxiously. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light. He saw that nearly everything in the bothy was made of stone with only a few pieces of furniture made from ancient oak wood. On the side opposite the hearthstone he could see a dark recess. Fragrant fresh straw was strewn on the worn stone floor. Cooking pots and assorted utensils, as well as countless sweet-smelling herbs and dried roots, hung from iron hooks in the walls. Along one wall there was a squat dresser made of stone. On it, clay pots and crockery stood neatly lined up row upon row. In the place of honor was a large brown teapot. A small iron cauldron simmered on the peat fire, suspended from the ceiling by thick metal links. Pale, bluish smoke rose and found its way out of the bothy through the smoke hole in the roof. The cauldron quietly bubbled and the delicious smell of coney stew filled the bothy. Brom’s stomach rumbled.
Hennock Pyn lifted the teapot from the dresser and heaped in generous spoonfuls of black tea from a wooden box. She filled the teapot with steaming hot water from a large black kettle that had been sitting in the fire. Brom and Hanne never took their eyes off the bustling trow-wife.
"Who is coming?" Brom asked again.
"The Maol," replied Hennock Pyn. Brom’s bushy eyebrows shot up and he snorted in amazement. “The mole?” he said curiously.
The skeely-wife took two round mugs from the top shelf of the dresser and poured out the strong tea. She dropped a thick slice of golden honeycomb into each mug and handed them to Brom and Hanne. "Drink this doon," she said. "She warms yer innards and perks yer bloods."
The skeely-wife squinted at them as if she thought they might not drink the hot tea. Brom and Hanne sipped the scalding drink. She did warm their blood nicely. Hennock Pyn wiped her hands on her apron. She pointed a thick, crooked finger at Hanne's cloak. Hanne instinctively pulled her cloak more tightly around her.
"Thoo has brought the wee bairn then? Jus’ the one?" she asked.
Hanne slowly nodded. She opened her cloak and took out the small bundle that she had been concealing. The bundle was wrapped tightly in soft warm furs. She held it in her arms and carefully pulled back the wrappings. Inside was a tiny baby. Hennock Pyn stepped closer and squinted at the baby. "Aye, it is he himself that is there," she said softly. The skeely-wife stretched out a blunt finger and gently stroked the baby's flushed cheek. The baby squirmed, blinked his eyes, but he did not cry. He stared up at the old woman's face. The skeely-wife held out her large rough hands indicating that she would like to hold the baby. Reluctantly, Hanne handed the baby to her. The skeely-wife cradled the baby in one arm and stroked his head gently with her hoary hand. The baby lay contentedly in the old woman's arm. He opened his eyes and stared up into the weathered face and gurgled happily. “Och, he’s a grand wee bairn,” cooed the skeely-wife.
Brom and Hanne glanced at one another furtively. As they drank the strong sweet tea they felt their tension slip away. Brom slumped back against the stone wall. But, Hanne remained alert, ready to spring for the baby if necessary.
Hennock Pyn bustled about the fire. She ladled hot stew into deep wooden bowls, tore large chunks from a round loaf of crusty brown bread, and handed them to Brom and Hanne. All the while cradling the baby in the crook of her left arm and cooing softly to it in a strange language that neither Brom nor Hanne understood. "Och, it is himself that is here," she said.
Brom and Hanne quickly glanced around the room to see who had come in. They saw no one. Suddenly, a small reddish-brown bird swooped down from the smoke hole and disappeared into a dark corner. Neither of them could see where it went. They looked back to the skeely-wife, then toward the low passage where they had entered, waiting to see who had entered the tiny bothy.
Brom and Hanne jumped when they heard a soft cough behind them. "Och, sit thoo doon man," said Hennock Pyn. "He be nothin’ more than the Maol himself that is noo here." Out of the deep shadows stepped a man. He brushed his sleeves with his hands and dust and feathers fell to the floor. The Maol was a man. He was not as tall or as brawny as Brom, but was of a good height. His red beard reached to the top of his chest. It was thick and full but not unkempt. Above the beard he had a great moustache that grew lighter at the ends and covered his mouth completely. The Maol wore a broad brimmed black hat with a faded red ribbon wrapped around its low crown. Beneath the hat his shaggy eyebrows shadowed his deep-set, twinkling eyes. The Maol wore only a brown robe. Over his shoulder was slung a battered, worn leather satchel. He looked at Brom and Hanne for a long moment, nodded, and then turned to the skeely-wife. "Hallo, Mistress Pyn," said the Maol. "What a night, eh? I journeyed here as quickly as I could, through the Old Ways, so that I could arrive here unseen. At least I hope unseen." His voice was deep and rumbled in his chest when he spoke. “Och, night is night and this is the darkest night of all nights,” she said. The Maol turned to Brom and Hanne. "I am very glad to see you both again," he said, and winked. "My name is Maol Rudha."
Brom and Hanne stared at the man in astonishment.
"THE Maol Rudha?" Brom blurted out. "From Moolstery?" “Aye,” said Maol Rudha. “The one and the very same.” The Maol took the mug of steaming tea that Hennock Pyn offered him. He glanced curiously at the baby nestled in the crook of her arm. For a brief moment Hanne saw a deep sadness in his eyes. And then he smiled, but his smile did not reach his eyes. Maol Rudha blinked several times as if to dispel smoke from his eyes. He coughed behind his hand and caught Hennock Pyn’s eye. The skeely-wife shook her head slightly and looked away.
"Thank you Mistress Pyn," he said. "On a night like this strong tea is just what is needed to warm the bones and ease the heart.”
He took a sip of his strong tea. Maol Rudha lowered himself into a low straw-backed chair. He took a wooden pipe from his satchel, packed it with sweet smelling tobacco, and lit it with a piece of straw from the floor. He sat back, contentedly puffing and blowing out the fragrant smoke. Then he continued to speak. “As swift and secret as I was, I was attacked just as I arrived in the islands,” he said softly.
“The Faarlanders’ ravens are spying over the islands. I barely escaped with my life.”
Hanne gasped and met Brom’s gaze with frightened eyes. Hennock Pyn paused for a moment and then ladled steaming stew into another wooden bowl, tore another chunk from the round loaf, and handed them to the Maol. "Eating time," said the skeely-wife as she ladled out a bowl of stew for herself and tore off another piece of bread. “But…” began Brom in an urgent voice. “It is noo’ eating time,” said the skeely-wife firmly. For a few moments no one spoke. Brom and Hanne did not take their eyes off these two imposing figures as they drank their tea and ate the stew in silence. Maol Rudha finished his stew. He drank his tea, relit his pipe, and puffed on it for a few minutes. The burning tobacco had a sweet, cherry fragrance. The peat fire burned low making the snug little bothy warm and cozy. The baby in Hennock Pyn's arms had fallen asleep. She stood up, walked to the sleeping niche, and carefully lay him down in the dark recess in the wall. She covered him with thick, warm blankets and turned back to the others. Hanne suddenly stood and took a step toward the sleeping place.
"Och, he'll be jes' fine," said Hennock Pyn. "The wee bairn needs sleep. He's that worn out," she said as she guided Hanne back to her place by the fire.
Hanne slowly sat down again but kept her eyes on the niche where her baby slept. Brom cleared his throat and turned to Maol Rudha. "The message said that we should seek Hennock Pyn in the Noorderlands," he said. "We’re here, by the grace of the stones and stars."
"It is by the grace of the stones and stars, and the mists, too," said Maol Rudha. "You have shown bravery beyond measure on this night of all dark nights.”
He paused and looked hard into Brom’s eyes. “And you must be braver still. For what we must tell you will not be easy for you to accept or understand. All we ask is that you listen carefully and trust us," Maol Rudha said quietly.
He shifted his weight on the stool and stretched out his legs toward the fire. Hennock Pyn grunted as she sat on a low stool near Hanne. The skeely-wife smelled of sweet herbs and peat smoke. She picked up an intricately carved wooden distaff, blackened with age, which had been leaning against the wall, and tucked it in the crook of her arm. Deftly, her thick fingers plucked the dark wool from the distaff and wound it expertly around the stone spindle whorl. Her blunt fingers gave the whorl a twist and let it drop, spinning out the dark wool into a strong even thread.
The sight of the old skeely-wife doing something as ordinary as spinning yarn by hand was comforting to Hanne. Spinning was something she understood. If she had not been so exhausted she would have wished that she had something to do with her own hands.
The three watched the spindle whorl drop and rise, drop and rise, time after time. Brom and Hanne began to feel drowsy as they watched Hennock Pyn’s fingers draw out the yarn from the wool.
Maol Rudha took a deep puff on his pipe and slowly blew out the fragrant scent up towards the ceiling.
"Well, now," he said. "How do I begin to tell you what you have travelled so far, and in such great danger, to hear?”
Brom shook his head as if shaking off a dream. Hanne slowly raised her eyes to look at the Maol’s face. They had finished their tea and sat waiting for him to speak. They knew, of course, that Maol Rudha was THE Maol. He was the Penkyrrd, the head of the Cymry of Maols----the Brotherhood of Mythographers---in remote Moolstery.
They knew, of course, that skeely-wifes were healers and charmers in the islands. And were surprised to learn that Hennock Pyn was not only a skeely-wife and a trow-wife, but was the Penwryn, the head of the The Cymrood of Skeely-wifes---the Sisterhood of Healers and Charmers. It was a mysterious message that had brought them on such a perilous journey. Now they sat in a snug bothy with two of the most revered and most mysterious inhabitants in the islands. Brom and Hanne said nothing and waited for Maol Rudha to continue.
"What I must tell you is not an easy thing to tell," he said again. "It is difficult to find the proper words to tell you so that you will understand why you were asked to make such a dangerous journey to this place.” He shifted his weight in the straw backed chair. “My belief is that when a task is difficult it is always best to do it as directly as possible."
Maol Rudha puffed on his pipe and leaned forward in his chair. His head and face was shrouded in bluish white smoke before it spiraled upward to the ceiling.
"These are difficult and perilous times for the islands, as you already know. You came to us tonight not knowing who or what you were seeking. Well, you knew that you hoped to find Mistress Pyn here, but you had no idea why. That took great courage and trust.” The Maol pointed his pipe at them and continued.
“It was the Mad Marauders, the Faarlanders, or Wolves of the Sea as we call them, that pursued you. They would have shown no mercy if they had come upon you in the mists. These men are heartless and cruel and would have cut your throats and taken the precious bundle you had concealed beneath your cloak, Hanne." Hanne and Brom held their breath. Hanne shuddered and gripped Brom's hand tightly in her own. Brom sat in stricken silence as he listened to these words. "It was, of course, Mistress Pyn, who had brought down the mists to shield you as much as possible from them," he continued. "The Faarlanders that pursued you were much closer than you realized. And there are other dangers lurking in the mists and underground that you discovered only too painfully for yourselves. Everything in the islands is slipping out of kilter.” Maol Rudha paused and watched the ashen-faced man and woman with great concern. "I do not mean to cause you more distress than you already feel. But I cannot hide the truth from you. Truth is often bitter, like cider gone bad, but must always be told plainly and swallowed bravely even in the darkest hour." Maol Rudha’s eyes drifted to Hennock Pyn's fingers as she continually twisted and dropped the spindle whorl over and over. She did not take her eyes from Brom and Hanne. "As you both know the Mad Marauders from the Fäarlands are raiding the islands more and more frequently. They are ruthless and evil beyond words. They care little for home and hearth. Moel Eyris is a coveted prize that they have sought to conquer for over a thousand years. The islands are protected by powerful enchantments, thanks to the skeely-wifes, but the mists are thinning and it is becoming much too easy for the islands to be found. There is but one hope that our islands do not fall under the Faarlanders’ dominion.” Maol Rudha paused again, tapped out the burnt tobacco from his pipe into the fire, and leaned forward once again. “That sliver of hope lies with the two of you. And with your baby." Maol Rudha nodded his head toward the place where the baby slept. Hanne had been gripping Brom's hand so tightly that he had no feeling left in it. They shifted uneasily on the settle as Hennock Pyn continued to spin out her endless thread. "What is the baby's name?" asked Maol Rudha. "Caelean," said Brom. "Caelean Artair Faolan. But, we call him Cael.” Brom glanced at Hanne and added quickly. “He is our only child, our only son…" His voice trailed off. Hennock Pyn’s fingers paused for a heart beat in their spinning, but she said nothing. “Your only child?” asked Maol Rudha. He cast a quick glance at Hennock Pyn and she shook her head imperceptibly. Maol Rudha looked from Brom to Hanne and back to Brom. He watched the two forlorn islanders huddled against the wall. The burly bear-like man seemed to have shrunk under the strain of the night's events. Hanne looked as though she might collapse under the heavy weight of Brom’s words. “Cael must go off-island," Maol Rudha said gently. Hanne gasped. Brom jumped to his feet. "Off-island!" he cried. "But he can't, he mustn't. We would never see him again." To go 'off-island' was the worst fate for an islander born in Moel Eyris. When an islander died he went 'in-island' and was still a part of the islands. No one who had ever gone off-island had ever returned. Their fate was unknown and what is unknown is what terrified the islanders most. "Och, me dears," said Hennock Pyn. "She canna be ootherwise." Her voice was filled with tenderness and sorrow. Brom and Hanne stared at the tiny hunched trow-wife as her fingers spun their magic. Somehow they both knew that whatever the skeely-wife was spinning, magic was being spun into the thread with each twist of the spindle whorl. They felt more frightened now than they had during the dangerous journey they had made to find the skeely-wife. Her words made no sense to them whatsoever. "Mistress Pyn," said Maol Rudha with a small smile, "only uses two pronouns. Trows have no word for 'it'. Someone or something is always male or female, he or she. What she means is there is no other way." "I spaeks me words jes' fine," she said indignantly and gave the spindle whorl a vigorous twist that sent it rattling toward the floor. Brom and Hanne stared at the ancient trow-wife. Hennock Pyn, the skeely-wife, was not someone to be trifled with. "Brom, Hanne," said Maol Rudha. "If there was any other way to save the islands from being overrun by these Mad Marauders, we would surely seek that path. But there is none. It is a great sacrifice that we are asking of you both. Asking, not commanding. And we would not ask if we did not believe in our hearts that you were brave enough to endure the pain of sending Cael off-island.” “But why Cael, why us?” pleaded Brom. “He’s just a wee bairn.”
“Cael is the one who has been chosen. The prophecy from the Orphir, the Stone of Truth, has been foretold. It is his Fate."
He saw the deep sorrow and horror in their eyes and continued. "At this moment the fate of the islands rests in your hands and your hands alone. Fate works in mysterious ways that we cannot always understand." Maol Rudha sighed deeply. "I know you are both exhausted, but time is against us, and we must know your answer tonight." His pipe was empty and was clutched, forgotten, in his hand. Brom and Hanne sat in stunned silence. Neither knew what to say or do. The thought had never come to them that they might be asked to make such a great sacrifice. "Going off-island is not always a terrible thing. I have gone off-island many times and have always returned,” said Maol Rudha in a hushed voice. The Maol sat back and played with unlit pipe. Maol Rudha stood. His knees cracked from stiffness from sitting so long in cramped quarters. He paced around the small room, his hands clasping and unclasping behind his back. Hennock Pyn sat motionless beside Hanne, hardly seeming to breathe. Only her fingers never ceased their constant spinning, spinning, spinning---drawing out the thread evenly as Maol Rudha spoke the terrible words. "Before the baby goes off-island,” Maol Rudha paused and glanced at the skeely-wife as if for reassurance. Hennock Pyn nodded slightly. “Before Cael goes off-island he must be placed into a deep sleep, an enchanted sleep. And, as in the old tales, he will sleep for one hundred years and then will be 're-awakened' in a safe place far from these islands where he…" At these words Brom exploded and leapt to his feet. "Placed in an enchanted sleep? For a hundred years? You're mad!” he shouted. Brom glared at Maol Rudha in disbelief. “We are not living in an old hen-wife’s tale. Or, are we?” he asked angrily.
"Brom," said Hanne in a hushed voice.
Brom spun around and stared at his wife, his mouth working but no words came.
"Brom, it is the only path, don’t you see? We both knew that if our secret was discovered we would have to pay dearly for…”
She paused, twisting her hands in her lap. Hanne looked the Maol directly in the eye. “I knew the moment I read those words in the message. It has grieved my heart ever since. I knew. I knew.”
"It is the only way, Brom," she said sadly. "I know it in my heart."
A single tear slid down her cheek and fell onto her breast. She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. She could not look at Brom.
Brom was furious.
“How can you give up our son so easily?” he bellowed. Then he buried his face in his hands. He could not look at Hanne. "I know it sounds impossible," said Maol Rudha softly. The Maol sat down, refilled and lit his pipe, then sat back puffing in silence. Finally he spoke. "IF all goes well?” Brom roared. “And what happens if all doesn’t go well? How can he return then? He would be just a boy. A boy out of his own time. How could a small boy find his way alone back to the islands? Tell me that!” Brom stopped speaking and wiped his hand across his face. He turned back to Maol Rudha and spoke more quietly the words that troubled him most. "And even if he did return," he said in a choked voice. "Hanne and I will be…will be…would be dead. A hundred years is more than our lifetime."
"Och, don't be daft," clucked Hennock Pyn. "How old dost thoo believe meself to be then?"
Brom stared unblinkingly at the skeely-wife and slowly shook his head.
"I be one hundred and twenty-nine this night!" said Hennock Pyn proudly. "An' ifs I be spared, me hopes to live a good long while yet."
Brom looked from the skeely-wife to the Maol. He sank down onto the settle beside his wife. Hanne reached for his hand, but he pulled it away.
"All I want to know," Brom said in an unsteady voice. "Is that he will be well taken care of and loved." His voice was low. "He's only a wee mite and I love him, we love him, with all our heart.”
He glanced quickly at Hanne, but she did not meet his gaze. “I myself have never been off these islands. I never heard the call to go off-island…" Brom began. His voice trailed off.
"Brom," said Maol Rudha, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. "I promise you that the baby, Cael, will be well taken care of and well loved. Two guardians have been chosen to go off-island with him. He will not be going off-island alone.”
Brom’s expression brightened in an instant and his mouth dropped open. “No, it is not yourself and Hanne that will go with him,” the Maol said quickly. “Two others have agreed to go off-island and guard Cael in his enchanted exile. It will be their greatest task. They will protect him with their lives, if need be, and will awaken him at the appointed time when he is most needed in the islands. These two guardians will look after him like their own son and watch him grow to be a fine young boy. To Cael they will be loving parents that he will know and love all his life. Next to yourselves these guardians are making a great sacrifice as well." Maol Rudha stopped speaking. He stood still and looked down at Brom and Hanne. There was nothing else to be said. Brom and Hanne sat in silence, not looking at one another. To send their baby off-island was almost too much to bear. For a long moment neither of them spoke.
"Yes," said Brom slowly." Yes, he must go off-island. I understand that. But…" and his voice faltered once again. "But, when?"
Maol Rudha and Hennock Pyn exchanged worried glances.
It was the skeely-wife who spoke first.
"The wee bairn must be left wi' me this night," she said. "I has prepared everything to work the po’erful charm that will place him in a deep, deep, untroubled sleep. An’ the spinning is done.”
“At the turning of the tide tomorrow night the baby will be taken onboard The Sea Mouse,” said Maol Rudha. He and his guardians must depart as quickly as possible for their long voyage.”
Hanne choked back a sob and her hands flew to her face. Brom put his thick arms around her and held her tightly. His chest felt as though a heavy stone was crushing the very life out of him.
"May we say good-bye to him? At the steamer, I mean?" Brom asked.
"It might be best to say your good-byes here in Mistress Pyn's bothy where it is safe," said Maol Rudha.
"No," said Hanne raising her head off Brom's chest. "No. I want to see him off at the steamer. He cannot be sent off-island without our being there. And if we can’t be there then he cannot be sent off-island.”
Hennock Pyn caught Maol Rudha's eye and nodded her head.
"So it shall be then," said Maol Rudha, standing up. "Now you both need rest. You must leave Cael here with Mistress Pyn. She will take good care of him. No need to worry. You two will be taken to another bothy some distance from here where you can be looked after and made comfortable for the night." Reluctantly, Brom and Hanne rose from the settle. Their joints were stiff and their bodies ached with fatigue. But their hearts ached more. "I will always love you," she said. "I shall never forget you." Tears brimmed in her eyes and began spilling down her cheeks. Hanne kissed the baby lightly. Her hand brushed his downy hair back for the last time. Cael raised his small arms, stretched and yawned. He opened his eyes and gazed at his mother. Hanne began to sob. "Good-bye, son," he said. “My own wee faolan. Don’t forget us.” He kissed him tenderly and handed him to the skeely-wife and brusquely wiped the tears from his eyes. Hennock Pyn took the baby and silently slipped into the dark shadows. Brom and Hanne could not see her or the baby in the dimness. Hanne took a step toward the place where the skeely-wife had vanished, but Brom’s hand held her back. Slowly, reluctantly, they turned away, pulled on their cloaks, stooped and followed Maol Rudha down the low passage to the heavy door. The Maol opened the door, standing just beyond they saw another skeely-wife. She was not a trow-wife. She was an island woman of middle age with a kind, patient face. “Follow me,” were the only words she spoke.
Maol Rudha turned and made his way back to the peat fire. He placed a few more peats on it, relit his pipe, and waited. The Maol sighed as he gazed into the fire. In a short while Hennock Pyn returned and sat down on the wooden settle. “It is done,” said Maol Rudha. “Och, aye, it be done,” said Hennock Pyn. The skeely-wife sighed deeply. “What about the baby?” Maol Rudha asked. “It will take me most of this dark night to makes him ready and ease him into his long, long sleep,” said the skeely-wife. “And what about the other baby?” asked Maol Rudha. “The one they did not bring with them.” “He will have to sleep, too,” said the skeely-wife. “But, not this night. It would be too much for them.” She stood and poured herself some tea. “Och, it’s jus’ warm. I do likes me tea hot,” she said. “We must find the other bairn quickly and he will sleep.” “Do you think that the prophecy means two boys, not one?” asked Maol Rudha. “Words can be tricksy things, tha’s for sure,” she said as she sipped her tea and stared into the fire. “And it be words that you know best, not meself.” “A boy will come. A boy will leave,” said Maol Rudha. “Those were the only words that were brought from the Orphir. “But, do we have the right boy?”
Brom and Hanne followed the silent skeely-wife without saying a word. They reached the bothy where they would spend the night and the next day. The solemn skeely-wife pushed the heavy door open and ushered them inside. Once inside, the skeely-wife took two small vials filled with amber liquid from her sleeve. She held the vials out to Brom and Hanne. “Drink this, it will help you sleep,” she said in a low voice. Without another word she crept down the low passageway and closed the door quietly behind her. Brom and Hanne heard a faint click as the door was locked. Brom and Hanne spoke no word. Brom handed one of the vials to Hanne. Together they drank the bitter drink in one gulp. They undressed in silence and crawled into the sleeping niche. The blankets and furs had been warmed and the warmth wrapped itself around them. Brom held Hanne tightly in his arms as they fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. They slept the sleep that only the dead can sleep. But unlike the dead, they would awaken on the morrow and bid farewell to their son.
Morning dawned grey and thick with heavy mists. Throughout the long day the mists blanketed the bothy and kept it safe. Brom and Hanne spoke very little. Hanne's eyes filled with tears many times, as did Brom’s. They did not see Maol Rudha or Hennock Pyn, nor the other skeely-wife all that day. Evening came. The magical mists hovered close and protective. There was soft knock on the door. Brom and Hanne heard the latch click, as the door was unlocked. The sound of footsteps could be heard in the passageway. It was Maol Rudha. He had come to fetch them and take them to the steamer. "It is time," he said. Again, Brom and Hanne obediently followed the Maol. The silent skeely-wife was waiting for them outside. She held a horn lantern, similar to the one that Hennock Pyn had held, and led them to a large flat stone not far from the bothy. The skeely-wife closed her eyes, bowed her head, reached out both hands and placed them on the stone. She pushed. The large flat stone slid noiselessly aside revealing a black hole in the earth. By the pale light of the lantern they could see a long narrow passage of stone steps leading deep underground. "This is the skeely-wifes’ secret passage from the top of the cliffs down to the sea," said Maol Rudha. "Tread carefully, the steps are slippery." The skeely-wife handed the horn lantern to Maol Rudha. She bowed her head to the Maol, nodded to Brom and Hanne, and backed away slowly and disappeared into the mists. Cautiously, the three cloaked figures began the long descent down the secret stairs. The stone-lined passageway was low and narrow. Brom's broad shoulders brushed either side. The air inside the passage was deathly cold and eerily still. Each step led them deeper into the cliffs. The air grew colder and the smell of brine and seaweed grew stronger. It was black as pitch with only the pale glow from the lantern glinting in Maol Rudha's upraised hand to provide any light at all. Maol Rudha led the way, followed closely by Hanne, then Brom. The passage did not turn, but every once in a while it made a turning and continued farther down to the sea. Brom smelled the sea. He heard its muffled pounding and knew they must be nearing the bottom. Time seemed to stand still. He could not tell how long they had been in the passage. It felt like a lifetime. Suddenly Maol Rudha stopped. He turned and faced Hanne and Brom. "We have reached the last step,” he said. “There is no turning back. We must wait for Mistress Pyn to open the secret door that leads onto the rocks at the foot of the cliffs." His voice echoed hollowly in the damp passage. In the lantern's soft light Maol Rudha gazed at Hanne and Brom. Their drawn faces appeared to float wraith-like in the darkness. They were unused to dark passages and secret places such as this. In the tomb-like silence they heard a faint click. The stone door in front of them slowly swung inward. They stepped back so that the door could swing fully open. Hennock Pyn stood just outside. Behind her they could see nothing but white mists and hear the sea crashing on the rocks. "Och, thoo be fine, then," the skeely-wife said. “No, we be not fine!” Brom wanted to shout. But he kept quiet and said nothing. Maol Rudha, Hanne, and Brom ducked their heads and emerged from the low doorway and stepped outside. The evening air was brisk, but not as cold as it had felt in the dank passageway. For a moment Brom and Hanne felt disoriented, as if in a dream. They could smell the brine of the sea and felt the gravelly stones beneath their feet. The mists were so thick they could barely make out the shape of the tiny figure of Hennock Pyn who stood just before them. "Come thoo noo and meet Grainne and Gerrans," said Hennock Pyn, as she beckoned toward the sea. Like pale wraiths, two small figures slowly appeared out of the mists. Maol Rudha, sensing their alarm, placed his hand on Brom’s arm. "They are not children," he said. "Grainne and Gerrans are young, but they are full grown. They are from the Isle of Mey. They were chosen to be Cael's Guardians and they will grow into their task." Brom and Hanne stared at Grainne and Gerrans in astonishment. Neither of them had ever set foot on the Isle of Mey---that most magical of all the islands. "Hello," said Hanne quietly. She stopped. She did not know what more to say. This boy and this girl would be taking her baby off-island and she must trust them with his life. Hanne stared at them awkwardly, not knowing what to say or do. It was Grainne who moved first. She stepped close to Hanne and took her hands in hers. Hanne felt the warmth and strength in this stranger’s hands. Grainne gazed steadily into Hanne’s eyes. "Hanne, we will love your baby with all our heart," said Grainne softly. “He will be like our own bairn. No harm will come to him. I promise.” Her voice was light and her pale grey eyes shone brightly. Hanne thought that she might break into a smile, so joyful was her face. "Thank you," said Hanne. "He is a good baby and won’t give you any trouble." Grainne squeezed Hanne’s hand reassuringly. She understood the young mother’s anguish. Gerrans stepped forward and stood beside Grainne. He barely reached Brom’s chest."We will guard and protect this baby with our lives," said Gerrans to the giant man. "He will be our treasure as well as yours. No harm will come to him. I promise." Brom felt the wet stones pressing into his cold, leatherclad feet. Everything about this scene felt wrong. All wrong. Something was missing. "But, how…" he began. Maol Rudha coughed behind his hand. "The tide will soon turn," he said quietly. "And if I am not mistaken the Sea Mouse waits just beyond those rocks." At that moment Hennock Pyn stepped toward them and for the first time Brom and Hanne saw that she carried a tiny bundle. It was tightly wrapped in the dark yarn that the skeely-wife had spun the night before. They knew that the spun yarn must contain powerful magic. But they could not imagine how. There were no openings nor bindings on the bundle. It looked just like a cocoon. It looked small and dark. It was Cael. Hanne could not tear her eyes from the strange bundle. She ached to hold it. The little group walked slowly across the stones. In the mists, bobbing on the waves, they saw a tiny steamer tied to a mooring. It was painted red with a broad black stripe along its rails. Brom and Hanne read the faded words 'SEA MOUSE' painted on the bow. A single smoke stack rose from its middle. A large, barrel-chested young man with a bushy black beard and thick black hair stood waiting on the deck. When he saw the small group approaching, he clambered down the narrow gangplank and sprang easily over the rocks to meet them. "Hallo," he boomed brightly. "It's a grand night for a sea voyage, eh?" The man’s eyes sparkled. His manner was confident and buoyant. He was taller and broader than either Brom or Maol Rudha, burly with massively thick, hairy forearms that stuck out from the woollen sleeves of his joomper. His hands were as big as bear paws. "Hallo, Mourteen," Maol Rudha said. He and Hennock Pyn greeted the young man warmly. The skeely-wife pulled a package from underneath her joop and handed it to him. It was wrapped in red chequered cloth. "A wee somethin' for the voyage," she said, her eyes twinkling brightly.
"Ah…" sighed Mourteen as he breathed in the delicious aroma of freshly baked bannocks coming from the package as he pressed it to his nose.
"Thank you, Mistress Pyn," he said. And he gave the old skeely-wife a scratchy bear-like hug that pleased her tremendously. "Brom, Hanne, this is Mourteen Murthuile, the captain of The Sea Mouse," said Maol Rudha. Mourteen stuck out his huge hand to shake hands with Brom. "Pleased to meet you," he said cheerfully and sincerely. "Are ye both comin’ along as well, then?" "No, Mourteen," Maol Rudha said quickly. "Your only passengers tonight will be Grainne and Gerrans and the bundle they carry.” Brom and Hanne saw that Grainne and Gerrans each had only one small leather satchel. These, and the small bundle that was Cael, was all that they were taking off the islands. "Och, is thoo ready, then," Hennock Pyn said. It wasn't a question. "Aye, it's best if we get started as quickly as possible," the young man said as he stowed the bannocks in the leather rucksack he had slung over his shoulder. "The tide is just about to turn and the Sea Mouse is eager to be off!" the sea captain said cheerfully. Mourteen cupped his hands and shouted across to the waiting steamer. “Brine!” he shouted. “Fire up the furnace and we’ll be off in a puffin’s blink.” Hanne's throat tightened and she clung to Brom's arm. Brom stared at the tiny steamer rising and falling on the waves. "This boat," he thought. "This boat is going take my son off-island forever." He stared at Grainne and Gerrans. They would be the only parents Cael would ever know. He would never know how his father’s heart was broken with the sadness of being parted from his son. Hennock Pyn stepped forward and placed the tiny bundle in Grainne's arms. She slipped a small leather pouch into her hand as well. The skeely-wife leaned close and whispered something that neither Brom nor Hanne could hear. Grainne nodded her head. She held the bundle tenderly, placed the small leather pouch in her satchel, and turned to the waiting group. "Farewell," she said. "Perhaps we will all meet again in another time, another place." There was great sadness in her voice. Her pale eyes scanned the cliffs as if she were memorizing them for the last time. She and Gerrans were leaving the islands forever. "Farewell, then," said Gerrans. He shook hands with Brom and Hanne. "We won't let him forget you. I promise." “But, what about the islands?” cried Brom. “How will he not forget where he was born?” Hennock Pyn moved close to Brom’s side. Her head barely reached above his waist. She beckoned for him to bend down so that she could whisper into his ear. “Och, Brom,” she said. “Don’t ye no worry. Cael will ne’er forget these islands where he was born. I made weel certain o’ that. Grainne knows what to do when the time comes.” The trow-wife touched her finger to the side of her nose and winked at Brom. As Grainne and Gerrans followed Mourteen to the steamer Hanne began to cry. In that moment she realized that she would not be allowed to hold the bundle that was her baby one last time. Brom put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close. Hanne slumped against him and sobbed. He held her tightly against his chest as tears streamed down his own cheeks. "We'll be off then," said Mourteen. "Time and tides wait for no man, or woman, or maol, or skeely-wife!" He picked up Grainne's satchel and slung it easily over his shoulder. He turned to face Brom and Hanne one last time. "Dinna worry. It's a grand night for sea voyage. Farewell. It was lovely to have met you." With a seaman's ease he sprang up the gangplank and hoisted himself over the rails. Grainne and Gerrans quickly followed and boarded the tiny steamer. Mourteen waved good-bye and disappeared into the wheelhouse. A puff of white steam rose from the smokestack and melted into the white mists. The tiny steamer began slowly backing away from the rocks. Hennock Pyn raised her arms and called to the mists. The mists began to lift. They thinned and faded into nothingness. High above them, in the clear night sky, the Seven Sisters shone brightly. The Sea Mouse slowly chugged its way out of the narrow channel between the steep cliffs heading out to open sea. Grainne and Gerrans waved to the four forlorn figures standing on the rocks. Maol Rudha and Hennock Pyn waved as the steamer silently slipped away. Neither Brom nor Hanne moved nor waved. "May Erce guide you and protect you," Maol Rudha said softly. Hennock Pyn drew down her arms and the white mists settled over the little group once again. Brom and Hanne stood a little apart. Hanne stood in front of Brom. His strong arms circled her shoulders as he pressed his strength into her shaking body. The Sea Mouse grew smaller and smaller, it turned the corner of the cliffs, and was gone. "Good-bye, son," whispered Brom. "I love you." Maol Rudha and Hennock Pyn turned toward the grieving parents and led them back into the secret cliff passage. Without a backward glance they stepped into the blackness. The heavy stone door closed behind them shutting out the sea, the stars, and a sad farewell.
Prologue: Islands on the Edge
Book One: The Secret Book of Moolstery
Copyright 2000 Olivier Dunrea. All rights reserved. No part of this writing may
be used without prior written permission from the owner of the website and the