When Ivor had been promoted to captain of the mormaor’s runners, four months ago, he had been assigned a room of his own in the armoury building. That was a great honour for an unmarried man in the fort at Stiegle, especially one who hadn’t even turned seventeen back then. But it meant that he wasn’t sharing a shed with the other runners, so there was nobody to hear him scream.
He was screaming because he was sitting on marshy ground, with his wrists and ankles tied, and a monster was coming for him. He couldn’t see it in the dark, except as a very pale shape, a sort of vague slightly-less-black in the blackness, but he could smell its horsey smell and hear its snuffling. Then it closed its teeth on his right leg. The pain was terrible, and he screamed even louder. It backed away, dragging him, but the rope around his wrists had been tied to the tree he had been leaning against, so his hands stayed where they were while the rest of him slid. His arms were twisted backward until they were wrenched out of their sockets, then his hands were crushed to paste when they were hauled through the rough rope bonds.
If he wasn’t screaming his lungs out by then, he certainly ought to be. He said, “Oh, St. Seumas, help me!” and woke up.
He was lying on his pallet, soaked in sweat and gasping for breath. His blanket was all entangled around his legs, showing how he must have been struggling. He listened, but he couldn’t hear anyone shouting, or beating on his door, so perhaps his screaming had only been part of the dream. But what a nightmare! He had never had one that bad before. He was very fit, running ten miles most days and sometimes a lot more than that, so he usually slept like a log—six and a half feet of pine.
It must mean something. Dreams that vivid always meant something. He had heard many stories of people dreaming of their own deaths, or loved ones’ deaths, and then, two or three weeks later.... But what could he do about this one? Who could advise him?
Gruoch, that’s who! Gruoch was the local wise woman, able to interpret dreams, read palms, foretell the sex of unborn babes, or explain whose curse had caused a sudden sickness. Gruoch, in short (and only in a whisper) was a Weird. He must go and ask Gruoch. Trouble was, only women went to visit her, in her hovel on the hillside. Men didn’t, or if they did, they did so in secret, by night.
What time was it, anyway? Having no window, Ivor’s private room might more honestly be called a cubicle, or even a closet by anyone wanting to start a fight. But he couldn’t hear feet going by his door, so it must still be dark. The gates of Stiegle Fort were closed at sunset and opened at sunrise, and absolutely nobody could order them opened sooner—nobody except Mormaor Malcolm himself, or Uvan son of Domlech, his senior housecarl... or Ivor of Glenbroch, his captain of runners. If Ivor so much as told the night watch that one of his team might come home before dawn, that would be authority enough to admit him.
Ivor scrambled around in the dark to find his clothes: leggings, smock, shirt, and blanket, which served as his cloak by day. He wore shoes only when it had snowed or he was going riding. He quietly opened the door, and was happy to hear faint snores from other rooms. Then he remembered that anyone going to consult Gruoch had better take her a gift. He racked his brains for a moment before recalling that he had a spare candle somewhere that he’d never used. That would do, if he could find it.
It was still night, but dawn was close enough that the kitchen serfs were awake, stoking up the fires. He trotted around that way and collected a piping hot bannock to eat on the run. With butter dribbling down his chin, he came to the gate and found the guards nodding at the end of their watch. They grumbled at having to open the gate for him, because there was a drill they must follow, to ensure that no enemy was lurking outside, but they didn’t ask him where he was going or why it couldn’t wait. They knew he wouldn’t tell them.
He set off down the hill at a slow lope, the gravelly surface cold under his feet. About halfway to the town, a faint path led off to his left, so faint that he almost missed it in the twilight. He would have to be quick, because if anyone at the fort learned that he’d been to see Gruoch, he would never hear the last of it. A seventeen-year-old man visiting a Weird would be suspected of having got some girl in trouble or—worse—of wanting to buy a love charm. Father Crinan would summon him and lecture him on the fate of his soul, for Jesus had not yet driven all the ancient gods out of Alba. Evil spirits still lurked in the remoter parts of its glens and moors.
From the outside, Gruoch’s home looked like a pile of sticks and turf, more of an animal’s lair than a house. Ivor surveyed it with dislike. A nearby spring explained how she could live here at all, but she must depend on the women of the town to keep her supplied with food. Some of them might be on their way to see her even now, so he would have to be quick, for the sky was growing brighter by the minute. A red dawn was an omen for bad weather ahead, especially with the harvest not all in yet.
“Gruoch!” he said loudly. “Anyone home? Gruoch?” After a moment, he repeated, “Anyone home?”
Came a croak: “Aye, she’s home. What’s a braw young lad like you doing visiting a Weird like old Gruoch?”
He couldn’t see her, so how could she see him? Then he realized that even he could tell the timbre of a young man’s voice from an older’s.
“I brought you a present, Goodwife.”
Cackle. “I’m no wife, good or no. Come in then and welcome.”
Ivor sank to hands and knees and crawled in. The inside smelled even more like an animal’s lair than the outside looked. Trying not to gag, he held out the candle, and it was removed from his grip.
“Aye, a rich gift indeed!” the old woman rasped, and she was no more visible than the monster in his dream. “So what do you want in return, young sir—you with a silver buckle on his belt and a silver ring on his thumb?” She must have the eyes of an owl!
“I had a dream....”
“A dream, is it? And what young man doesn’t dream of the girl he fancies?”
“No, not like that!” There was a girl he fancied a lot, but he didn’t dare dream about her—Malcolm would kill him. “A monster.”
The old woman made a sound that might have indicated surprise. “Give me your hand then, lad. No, the left one.” Two bundles of fingers like knobbly dry sticks closed around his hand. One of them wandered up his forearm and then went back to join with the other. “You’re younger than I thought, but older than you seem.” Long pause. “You bear heavy burdens that mortals cannot see.”
She was hinting at the messages he carried, but he was not impressed with her magic, because he could guess that she had recognized his runners’ belt buckle.
“Tell me then,” she wheezed. “Tell me of this dream that so wracks a young man’s soul.”
He told her what he could remember. Already the details were starting to blur. Why had he been so scared, like a baby? He had wasted a perfectly good candle and risked making a public fool of himself.
For a long time the old crone said nothing, but the grip of her gnarled hands did not slacken, so he could not just leave, which is what he very much wanted to do now. The sun would be up.
“You will go on a sad, sad journey.”
Of course he would go on a journey! That was his job—running over half Alba carrying messages from Malcolm—and he did it very well.
“You will try to save a fair maiden.”
That sounded more like a job for a swordsman than a boy with strong lungs and a good memory, but she hadn’t said he would succeed. For every famous hero rescuing damsels there must be a dozen meatheads who just screwed up. He was going to protest or perhaps even laugh, but the grip on his hand tightened in warning. So there was more to come, but it took times, while the Weird moaned as if in distress. Then she groaned.
“You will meet the monster and when help comes, you will refuse it.”
She released him. “Go!” she cried. “The sun is up... go... go now!”
“Oh, well, thank you.” He backed out into the so-welcome fresh air. There was nobody in sight, and the edge of the sun had just topped the hills. It was over, thank the saints. How stupid he had been! Meet a monster and refuse help? What nonsense! Rain was starting to fall, so the weather had broken. He ran back to the fort for breakfast and the day guards welcomed him home as if he had been away for days.