MINSTREL'S STAFF

Book 5 in the Tapestry of Cumbria

chapter 1




Gwen and Trystan staggered, trapped within the branch-tunnels of the vast World Tree as it swayed in turmoil, passages closing. Too long they had wandered, lost, seeking the way back to the world of mankind, catching glimpses of other realms--

Utgard, land of giants beneath a sky holding two moons.

Svartalfheim, the gloomy haunt of trolls.

Nidavellir, riddled by caverns, lit by dwarven forges.

Parched and desperate, they had at last slaked their thirst from seepage in Nidavellir, though they knew the price they'd pay. The flow of time lurches beyond reason for any mortal who eats or drinks in one of the Otherworlds.

Now the Tree's guardian ushered them to the highest reach of the maze of tunnels within branches. The creature, large as a dog, lashed its bushy tail as another jolt shook their footing. "The branches close! No more free passage-ch-ch!" it chattered. "Each-ch-ch to its own! Up now, quick-ck-ck!"

"Up where?" Gwen gasped. This tunnel was blocked by a slide of rock and boulder.

"Up, up, up!" Twitching its tufted ears, the Otherworldly squirrel whipped around and scampered down the passage, out of sight.

Gwen stared up the landslide, which stood out dark and dead against the wan glow of the cracking tunnel walls.

"There's no way through!" Trystan cried out as another jolt sent him reeling.

Gwen grabbed his arm and they steadied each other. "We're still trapped!" she moaned. "Oh Brig, save us!"

"Look again, daughter of the mountains," came a whisper soft as the sigh of a meadow breeze, that same bodiless voice that twice before had nudged Gwen into a path of hope.

She peered upwards again. There in the highest dark shadow one small spark gleamed, a prick of crystal light.

"A star," Gwen breathed, then cried out, "Look, Trys, a star! This way." She hiked her skirts then scrambled up the boulders and rock clutter and scree with Trystan right behind, cramming themselves into the tightest of passageways. They clawed at the dirt, scraping it past their knees and behind. They crawled, squirmed, wriggled like great earthworms through the last crack between stonefall and dimming tunnel roof.

Trystan pushed Gwen through. She reached back and grabbed his hand and heaved him out into the cold, brisk air of a mountain top.

Wind blew in darkness. It brought the smell of heather and gorse and juniper. It brought the keening cry of a night-bird, staking claim to this stretch of hillside.

Gwen brushed hair from her eyes and searched the heavens. Through tears she saw the White Road arching high overhead. All the familiar stars ranged in age-old patterns that told direction and season and the time of night. One large moon -- one only, as it should be -- hung low on the horizon of the world of mankind.

Slapping dirt from his tunic and breeches, Trystan joined Gwen, gazing skywards at the stars of Midgard's summer. She wrapped her arms around him, buried her head against his shoulder as he drew her in, and wept. "We're home." * * *

The first hint of dawn crept in silver hues over highlands to the east. Still clenching for warmth and comfort, Gwen and Trystan studied mountaintops in an arc from west to southwest to south. "That's Huntsman's Peak!" Gwen said, pointing just east of south. "And if so, we must be atop Wildcat Heights!"

The never-ending wind riffled Trystan's shoulder-length auburn hair. "So Teg's cave is practically beneath our feet," he said. His mouth quirked to one sided in the shadow of his mustache.

"We've returned not far from where we plunged in." Gwen shivered at thought of the troll that had pursued them into the trap they'd laid for it at High Hollow. "How many years have passed, I wonder?"

"I hope the Northfolk still hold the land," Trystan said, his straight dark brows knitting. "What an ill fate to befall us -- just when we were settling in, making a place for ourselves -- to stray and lose it all once more."

"Perhaps our own kin have come back from Wales to reclaim our mountains."

"Kin, hmm?"

"Distant kin. So very, very distant." Gwen broke from his embrace to wheel and study the horizon. No smoke spirals curled skyward nearby, though a haze hung in the northwest. She glanced north towards Caer Luel where a fainter haze dimmed the sky. The Danes had demolished the ancient Brytish town, but how long ago had that been, in the reckoning of the world?

Trystan finger-combed the dust from his short beard as he studied the southward slopes. "Light enough to find our footing. Let's go see who now holds our lands." He picked a way down from the rounded skull of Wildcat Heights.

Gwen hesitated, staring at the mountainsides across the dale -- ridges that grew sharper in the waxing light, taking on color. So much pale ground, so little dark rumpled green. "What has happened to the wildwoods?" she asked the wind, which had no answer.

How many years of Northfolk hewing timber for charcoal burning, to leave the hills so barren of leaf and limb? "Is this what the Fair Folk see when they come trooping through our world?" she wondered. "Great strides of change since last they came. A world ever remaking."

For a heartbeat and two and three Gwen felt swept into the mindset of the undying Fair Folk, older than the moun-tains, gazing down on the fleeting follies of mankind. She shrank under the weight of time pressing down, then shook herself. Eighteen winters only she had on her shoulders, not the countless ages of the world.

The first rays of sunshine gleamed like fire in her hair, red-gold flames tossing on the breeze. With a swish of pale green wool and white linen gone grey with the grime of Otherworlds, Gwen set off after Trystan.

"We must find High Hollow," his voice drifted back to her as she ran to catch up. "Fetch my sword and knife. See if the troll dropped my staff inside Teg's cave before the creature came charging after us down the tunnels."

Trystan still wore his scabbard, though it hung empty. He had set aside both knife and sword before luring their first foe, an ill-tempered dwarf, to Teg's cave and its passage into the Otherworld. Forged of iron, the bane of Otherworldly creatures, the blades would have soured their parlay with the vengeful, short-statured smith from Nidavellir.

Just their bad luck the hulking troll had come along before Trystan had thought to re-arm himself. And there'd been nothing Gwen could do to fend the brute, her own weapons so recently bartered away.

Now Trystan and Gwen hunted the poorly wooded mountainside until they found one certain dell beside a granite cliff, the rock face yawning with a crevice that slanted into the depths. Teg's cave.

They searched the bracken in the dell, finding no sign of the belt knife. "Here, my sword!" Trystan cried in glee, grasping the half-hidden hilt. He drew the weapon from its earthy sheath.

The two of them stared at the blade, cankered with rust. No amount of whetting or honing or polishing would restore this sword to use.

"Rusted to onionskin," Trystan whispered. "How many years have flown by, this time?"

Not that long ago, they'd returned from a venture into the Summerlands of the Fair Folk to find three centuries had passed in the realm of mankind. Teg had set his sword aside when they had vanished, wrapping it in oilskin and charms, and the iron blade had lasted the years in fine shape.

Not nearly so fine a state now, wrapped in fern and bramble and withered bluebell sprigs, resting on the damp litter of the wildwood floor, drenched in rain and fog and mist and snow -- for season after season.

"But we didn't stay nearly so long in the dwarves' caverns as we did in the Summerlands!" Gwen said. "Nothing passed our lips. Nothing but water. Brig help us, but this much time should not have flown by!"

"You set foot into Utgard, remember," Trystan said. That misstep had nearly wrenched them apart forever. Had it spun them deeper into the twists of time?

There was no blame in his voice. He drew Gwen close, hugging her tight. "I almost lost you," he whispered into her hair.

"Almost lost you," sneered a voice from the cliff overlooking High Hollow.

Gwen whirled. Trystan whipped the flimsy blade up to fend the danger.

On a ledge over the slanting entrance to Teg's cave perched a bogan. The wee man spat an arc of spittle that smacked in the dirt at their feet. "I've been sent with messages," he grumbled with a bristling of his twiggy beard. "Why they pick on me, I don't know. Do I look like a lad to be ordered around on errands? Stop waving that stinking wand, great lumbering fool, or I'll be off and no message for you."

Trystan lowered the sword and stepped back a pace.

The bogan stood as tall as his short legs would allow, and hitched at his brambly belt. "Don't bother her no more," he proclaimed. "She can't come, no matter how you call on her, and you've used up all your boons anyways."

"Who?" Gwen asked. "Lady Daron?"

"No bellowing her name like that either! Have some respect, you dimwitted manling!"

"I have no plans to call on her."

"Nor on her mistress? Did I not just hear you plead to Brig for aid? The passage is shut, I tell you. They're not coming through no more."

"But you have done so. And if you can come through, why not the Fair Folk? They're so much more--"

The bogan leaped to a higher ledge and glared down. "More what? More tall? More fine? More fair? More glossy and silken and dripping with power? Why not call me puny while you're hurling insults?"

"I mean no insult."

The bogan vanished from the cliffside, appearing at Gwen's knee. He kicked her ankle. "Sometimes puny is good!" he cackled and darted out of reach. "Sometimes puny means not-seen when not-seen keeps you alive!"

Trystan broke from his amused stance, brandishing the cankered sword again, but the bogan had already melted into the scanty undergrowth. Rough laughter sounded from one direction then from another. "There's still enough iron left in my blade," Trystan shouted, "to give you the hiding you deserve!"

"Ah, the great fool, the lovesick swain!" jeered the bogan from somewhere. "Good luck guarding your lass. This world has become a hard place for winsome wenches!"

"Mind your tongue, you!" Trystan slashed at bush and bramble. With a crack, the tip of the rusty blade broke off.

"I'll mind it, I will. I'll mind it well. In fact, I'll let nothing slip of the second message I bear, nothing but this: Find your friend where they drowned the crown."

"What friend?" Gwen called. She threw a frown at Trystan.

He shrugged.

"Nimmy the goatling?" she tried.

The bogan snorted.

"Kolla of Maurr's Thwaite? Or Unna? Or Thora?" she asked, ticking off the Northfolk maidens who had given the most welcome.

The bogan huffed, sounding even further distant.

Gwen scrambled in thought. What friend would this message be about? A message from the Fair Folk. Her eyes rounded. "Teg?" she cried. "You speak of Old Teg, don't you!"

The bogan's laughter was swallowed up by the cackle of a woodpecker.

Gwen spun to face Trystan. "The last message about Teg said she'd gone ahead. Now we have gone ahead as well."

His eyes widened. "She must have set foot into another world like we did -- and gotten swept ahead in the whirl of time."

"Is she here somewhere? How will we find her?"

"Simple. Where they drowned a crown. Whatever that means."

"Meddling bogans! The last thing we need now is a riddle." Gwen turned her gaze to the slanting crevice in the side of the cliff. Old Teg's cave. The troll-stink had long since wafted away. Time had faded the gashes in the granite, stone-wounds from a dragon clawing its way out. "Will she have left a message of her own?" she whispered.

"There is only one way to find out." Trystan drew a flint from his belt pouch and managed, after a finger-blistering span of time, to strike a spark from the iron blade. He nursed a small fire while Gwen hunted for dry pine boughs to use as torches.

Then together, with blazing boughs in hand, they crossed the threshold.





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