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Mistwalkers - Mishka's Wa
Chapter 2
Weddings

I wrote the prologue intro to this story last year, inspired by the look of the Colorado River one cool morning. What follows is an attempt to discover the story surrounding that paragraph.I hope you enjoy it, & come back often for  updates - it is a work in progress & I will continue to add more of the story as it is revealed to me. Feel free to email comments to  abbot@wolflodgetx.com   Thanks!
 
The MistWalkers - Mishka's War©
Prologue
We strode thru morning misted fields without a destination, the sky reflecting nothing of the grassy moors beneath. 'Twas if the clouds were pressing down, entreating "Stay. Stay & rest, for the noontide will ye soon welcome". My heart well bade me linger, and stroll in leisure among the quiet. Yet on we strode, our boots running with the dews, our eyes intent upon the ground, for there was naught to see before them. There were no other sounds but the sighs of our steps wading thru the low grasses, & the dull tamp of our staffs upon the ground. And above these drifting vapored banks there rose… the oak.
Beneath its’ ancient limbs, the mists parted. It’s dappling shade was somehow clearer than the mists, which slid about it as if wafted by zephyrs we could not discern. A steady, light rain fell from the branches, and cold pools sat among the roots, which were topped with emerald mosses. We are here, I thought. After all this, we are here.

 

Chapter One

The morning was unwelcome, when we set out across the vale to escape our wee valley.

The palaver went on beyond the wee hours, the discussion warming & waning as the ale dwindled & weighty decisions were made. Finally, ere the first gleam of dawn smiled upon the ebon sky, they were asleep with murmuring dreams, the rumblings of burdens taken up, & dire things to come.

Sleep did little to steel resolve – there was too much truth for such a thing. Still, I strove to stand my ground in the far corner, behind the glow of the paling embers, eyes wide & refusing rest as I struggled to understand what we must do, & to find within me the strength of conviction to know that I was capable of it.

Dawn was unwelcome, for my spirit was not yet convinced.

Under a foreboding sky, I stood, my cup of too-strong tea cooling in my hand, unattended. I looked out across this valley that had been my cradle, my swaddling cloak of green forest tucked deep between the snowy peaks, the slow river an unbroken sash of deeper green girding the whole of what had been my home. Had been: I grunted mirthlessly. Have I already abandoned hope of return?

I heard the massive oaken door creak open behind me, accented by a sharp draw of breath at the chill of the early morn. Lairik, my brother, stamped to my side in a cloud of warmth & steaming breath, his bison fur cloak slung haphazardly across his broad shoulders. “Mishka,” he grumbled, “up so early, yet I see your tea has gone cold: is this how you waste the fire?” I said nothing, but sipped the bitter brew to satisfy him.

“The others will be about soon – I do not wish to set out so late that we are caught far from the pass at nightfall.” He paused, looking at me with a scowl. “You were quiet last night, and silent you are today-have you nothing to contribute?”

Truly, I wanted no conversings save my communing with my beloved homeland, in sooth for goodbyes & futile promises. For farewells & remembrances, for writing upon my memories the events of my 24 summers here, in this blessed place. Still, Lairik was not one to be denied, as my sibling & as my chieftain. With a rousing sigh, I turned to his scowl & smiled, “Unlike the council, I reserve my words for import.” “If I speak with no weight or meaning, they flutter aloft like lifting dews, useless, gone & forgotten more quickly than a wench’s glance.” His scowl deepened to glower; “Poets! Pfah! Of no consequence, like your mutterings. Come, let us break our fast, and join the trail. The day is leaving our grasp already!” We turned as brothers, his massive arm thumping onto my shoulder, & we strode back into the house, the smells of roasting bison & loon eggs wafting out.

Too soon, we were laden & ready for the long walk, a force of only six for a task demanding a hundred. The bison team grumbled ‘neath the massive yoke, as the wagon full of provisions creaked & rocked with the final loading. Much work for a temporary task, as this heavy contraption would not trail us all the journey’s leagues. As for myself, I carefully groomed & blanketed my pony, Spark, who nickered & stamped nervously. Even a treat of the last apples did little to cheer him. The spiked amber blaze on his forehead shone thru the fog of his exhalations, like the smoking embers of a dying fire.

Ere the sun was clear of the mountains, Lairik’s shout brought our caravan to a lurching start. I rode in front of the wagon, Spark prancing to warm himself as we wound down the slope to the main rock gate. I felt a deep pang of loss as I passed ‘neath its’ arch, as if something had been wrenched away & I nearly cried out as it stabbed my heart to the core. No turning back now, Mishka, I told myself: we are away.

Comfortable in Spark’s rhythmic trot, my mind cast back for the beginnings of this dire quest. It seemed eons ago that the clan was peacefully working in our valley, cutting timber, tending crops, hunting for game & fishing the slow river. I enjoyed scribbling by hearthside in the evenings, putting my thoughts to ink, scrawling a drawing of some beautiful snippet of nature that I encountered that day.

 

It was on such an eventide that the horseman had come clattering thru the gate, shouting to alert the house as he came to a halt at the doorway & nearly fell from his perch. Lairik was the first out the door, his usual scowl now thunderous as he assessed the rider – friend or foe, good news or sad tidings? His great axe he had drawn from its’ place aside the hearth, & he held it ready as the rider struggled for breath. “Chieftain Lairik,” he panted, “I bring greetings & a summons from Elder Kateman, & the council at Ramakai”. He held out an oiled pouch, sealed with the Crown & Thistle mark of the council. Lairik took the pouch gruffly, examined the seal & found it intact. He turned to me “Mishka! Tend his horse, & see that this courier is served the hospitality of the Kittkan clan. Send a rider out to the barrens & call in my captains. We will read this scroll together. And be quick!” I nodded to my brother, took the reins of the horse, & beckoned the rider to follow. As we rounded the main house to the stables & soldiers’ quarters, I called to my younger brother Evanik & instructed him to gather the captains with all speed. He dashed off to his pony, & soon cleared the gate,  turning east toward the lowlands as the last of the sunset ebbed red & faded.

I turned my gaze upon the rider as I fed & groomed his horse in a stall of fresh hay. He was a small man, dressed plainly in a leather jerkin bearing the emblazon of the Council. His hands were red, nearly bleeding from the rough reins. “Here, this salve will mend your hands. When your horse is rested, I will bring your meal: rest here with your mount.” I finished tending the horse & hurried to the main house, returning with a bowl of bison stew & a tankard of stout. The rider was drowsing on the hay, nearly asleep, rousing at my call just as the captains began arriving. He glanced toward the main house; I shook my head: “You must remain here – the clan council must discuss your summons in secret. I will see to your comfort later. Now eat!”

Soon the 4 captains were seated around the massive oak table, with the fire roaring high & tankards foaming with black stout. All eyes were on Lairik, as he ceremoniously broke the seal & pulled out two goatskin scrolls. These he handed to his captains, & each nodded his assent that the seals were authentic & unbroken. Lairik then broke the seal of the larger scroll, “This is the hand of Elder Kateman, under the seal of the Council.” He squinted at the document, then bellowed my name. “Mishka! Come lend your eyes, & read these scribbles!” I took the scroll, stepped closer to the fire, & read aloud: “To the Chieftain Lairik of the Kittkan clan, greetings. As is my duty & my office, I summon thee & thy captains to the Council Keep on the morrow. Thy presence is required – let nothing thee delay. All the Chieftains of all the clans of our valley will meet in secret Council at the height of the sun. The very existence of our people is threatened. I fear that we may be destroyed ere the crops grow tall this spring; in sooth, this may well be the final springing of our lives. The reason lieth in the second scroll – read it in secrecy, & do not allow the courier knowledge of it’s message. Send only your promise of attendance, & send it via the courier this night. Time as well is our enemy. Stand forward, Lairik, & prepare for battle!”

The captains murmured in surprise, as their valley had been at peace since they could remember. Battle? With what enemy? Lairik raised his hand to quiet them, his signet ring catching a fiery glint from the flames on the hearth. He reached for the second scroll and stopped at a creaking noise near the door. Captain Polset was closest, & drew his sword as he leapt to the jamb, forcing the door open to a thudding sound against the cobblestones. The rider lay groaning upon the ground a few feet away, rubbing the back of his head with a blood-soaked hand. Polset soon had him at the point of his blade, his booted foot pinning the man to the stones. Lairik arrived & growled to the prone courier. “So, you who wear the emblazon of the Council & serve Elder Kateman now betray his trust & the order of my clansman & brother, to skulk in darkness’ cover to hear that which you are forbidden to know? Who are you, in truth? Speak quickly ere I loose Polset’s hand!”

Blinking up thru the pain, the rider spoke bitterly: “Chieftain Lairik, I meant no disrespect. I rode hard under penalty of death to deliver this summons, the reason for which would not be given me. Your own brother can attest to the condition of my mount that I did not tarry in my sworn duty. Yet, the reason for my endangerment I am not to know? I tell you this, sire; the Council is in disarray. Intrigues are rampant, dark mutterings float the halls of the Council keep. None are trusted, Lairik; I fear for my family, for my clan, & could not rest ere I knew the threat which brings these storm clouds o’er my kin.”

Lairik glowered at the rider. “Polset!” he snapped, “Have your men hold him under guard while I consider his fate.” The captain nodded, & motioned for his soldiers, who dragged the courier back toward the stables. Lairik turned back into the house as Polset posted the guard & bolted the door behind them.

The Chieftain looked each man in the eye in turn, then lifted the second scroll & passed it around the table. Once again the captains nodded in assent, & Lairik broke the final seal. The letters were strange, nearly runic, as Lairik this time studied it with his own eyes. “What do you make of this?” he asked softly, as he handed the scroll to Tambyn on his right. Then it went to Brognor, then Polset, then Ascorle, & back to Lairik. I myself stood at Lairik’s side reading with him. “Strange this writing is, yet I can read it easily, in our native tongue” mused Lairik. Tambyn started, saying, “What jest do you craft, Lairik? The scroll is writ in the ancient tongue of my Grandfathers, of far away Dastaria: a tongue I learned at my great-grandfather’s feet but have nae spake since my youth!” Brognor growled, “Impossible! “Twas scratched in the Srylling way of my ancestors, plain as sunrise!” Polset & Ascorle looked around the room. “Gaulish was the tongue for me,” said Polset. “And you, Ascorle?” “Flemnacht it was, Lairik. No doubt!”

Lairik’s eyes lifted from the table. “This is not a document scribed by the hand of a man, but a sorcerer, a trickster!” “Tell me, captain Tambyn, how read it?” Tambyn stared at Lairik, & spoke slowly “Lairik, my Chieftain, it bade me fall upon you & take your life, lest I lose mine.” “This I could not do, no matter the risk, as I have sworn fealty to you & to our clan.” “And you, Brognor?” “This evil scribing bade me take all the lives of this gathering, & bring your heads to Council Keep! Pfah! I would sooner cut off my own!”
Polset nodded, “Fire was my order, to burn the house of Kittkan to the ground.” Ascorle shook his head, “And mine, to poison the ground, that it never live again.”

“Mishka”, whispered Lairik, “you are the most learned among us in the ways of the scribbler – what say you?” “I could make out nothing, brother. The script was meaningless to me. Tell me, what did you read?” Lairik looked up angrily, “You speak too familiarly, little brother! Do not question your Chieftain!” I smiled at him, as I knew his discomfiture. “This arcane scrawl is a trick, a lie, a way of written war. I bids me slay the Council in their sleep, & hold the reins of power for one unnamed , who will rule the world, & bestow riches upon me alone.” Each of the captains withdrew a bit from the table, their hands instinctively seeking steel at their sides. “Stand easy, my comrades: I am no more under it’s thrall than you.”

I then said to Lairik “Brother, let me see it again.” I stepped closer to the fire, til the golden glow shone thru the goatskin. I heard gasps of surprise behind me, & the scraping of chairs as the clan council stood now with steel in hand, pointing toward the scroll. “Stand away, Mishka!” ordered Polset, “Hang that accursed thing upon the pot hook!” I did so & stepped back to Lairik’s side. With the distance, I could now see upon the goatskin the image of a monstrous face, & I recognized it as the face of Elder Kateman, but twisted & corrupted near to unknowing, the visage of my Grandfather now drawn evil & contemptible. My heart fell, my spirit cried out. Lairik spoke slowly, “It would seem that our revered Elder is taken from us, yet he summons us to his Keep. We will ride thither tomorrow, but we ride as to war, not to Council”. “Mishka, scribe our answer to Elder Kateman, that we will join him in Council at midday tomorrow. Patch up their courier, & send Evanik with him as escort; this rider is more than he seems, & is not to be trusted. Young Evanik is the favorite of your Grandfather, & his presence will allay his suspicions that we have discovered the treachery. Then return here quickly: we ride not an hour hence, to arrive ere dawn.”

The courier & Evanik were gone quickly, the rider swaying in his saddle, Evanik tense yet excited for the chance to see his beloved Grandfather again. Their dust trails faded as they reached the riverbank & began the crossing. I brought all the horses to the main house, & the captains & Lairik mounted. “Mishka, fetch your wee Spark. I would have you join our quest, as you alone were untouched by this conjuring, & may well be our salvation. Who knows, you may be useful after all!” I trotted to the stable as Polset set the guards around the house. We were at the river in a moment, at the ford we knew so well we could cross without a thought. Lairik led the troop into the water, single file they waded into the current, the horses’ steps strong & sure.

As we passed the midpoint ‘neath a full-lit moon, a scream reached us on the wind. A wail of terror & pain, of anguish unmeasurable, then a sudden silence. At once, the horses were urged to a gallop in the murky waters, scrambling up the slope to the trail that led to the ridgetop, a deep & darkling tunnel ‘neath the nightfallen forest canopy. As the troop crested the ridge, Lairik gestured for Polset to ride next to him, Tambyn & Brognor were next, edging the trail, & Ascorle & I formed the rear guard. We proceeded in this fashion for nearly an hour, scouring the ground, searching for something other than the hoofprints of the rider & Evanik as they had ridden side by side. As the next high ridge passed ‘neath us, I stole a glance back at the river in the distance, & could barely discern the fireglows of our home. Upon the river flowed a misty fog. “Strange”, I thought, “this is not the time of year for such things.” Lairik’ hissing “Halt!” brought my attention back to the trail. He was staring down into the brush aside the trail, & dismounted, sword in hand. He parted the bushes, & the moonlight now shone upon the body of the rider, his neck broken, & a bloody wound glistening where his jerkin had borne the Council emblazon. Immediately the captains turned to all directions, steel drawn, scanning the forest & the trail for signs of ambush.

Lairik lifted the body of the rider, & bound it to Spark behind my saddle as I searched for hooftracks leading away from the place where the rider was slain. There were none. “What is this trickery?” blustered Brognor, “How can two horses not leave a track upon a soft trail such as this?” As Lairik & I guarded the site, the captains set out in the forest, forming a search circle to locate Evanik. After what seemed like hours, they returned, having found no trace. “Mount up, Mishka. We ride upon the keep as planned, but this accursed trail we will leave behind. I fear more awaits us upon its track. Stay sharp, my captains, & Mishka, watch where we have been!”

Single file now, Lairik led the way, giving the trail a wide berth. These are our lands, I thought, thankful that Lairik & I knew them so well. Spark snuffed in annoyance – he missed the sureness of the trail ‘neath him, & I suspect he did not welcome his burden of the rider, which shifted troublingly behind my perch. Each time I looked behind, I could not but look at him, & once was startled to see his faded blue eyes staring at me, nearly glowing in the moonlight. I made a note to cover his face when next we rested, so that his ghoulish glance would not find me anew. But rest, it seemed, was not what Lairik had planned. We had lost the race with dawn, & were still far from the Keep when it crept above the mountains. Polset moved up next to Lairik, & mumbled, “We have lost our surprise, sire, & will arrive at midday as your message stated.” “A message that did not arrive ere the courier was slain.” answered the Chieftain. “Or so it would seem…” said Polset, who reined his horse around & waited for Spark to pull alongside. “Stop a moment, Mishka. I would examine our rider more closely.”

I did as he ordered, & Polset cut open the rider’s jerkin. “The sealed pouch is not with him, nor was it at the attack point. This was not the work of any random highwayman, especially since none would dare attack a courier bearing the Council emblazon.” Polset rode forward to report to Lairik. Again the pale eyes looked at mine, begging for mercy & accusing at the same time. I covered his face with my kerchief, half believing that I could still make out his foggy stare thru its’ fabric. As I mounted Spark, I again caught the sight of a hazy mist not far off among the trees. “Mishka”, I muttered to myself, “do not see ghosts in every tree. You are acting like a child!” I nudged Spark to a trot, eager now to catch the rest of the company.

Lairik & Polset spoke in hushed tones as the forest fell away behind us. Just as we approached a wide clearing, the dawnglow appeared. Lairik signaled a halt, & all dismounted. Spark & the horses grazed hungrily at the grasses just inside the treeline. I passed around a wineskin as we rested on moss-covered logs. Lairik spoke: “our surprise arrival is taken from us. I would know whether our missive reached the Keep in time to let them prepare for our arrival. Polset feels the slaying of the courier was no random act, & I am led to agree with his counsel. We must assume that they expect us mid-day. Here is what I propose:” My brother, Chieftain of the Kittkan clan, laid out his plan; a plan so brash & so bold that I was sure he had taken leave of his senses. Still, this was not the time to doubt or to question. I set about doing as I was told.

We skirted the clearing, keeping to the treeline as the morning dews lifted into the air. Soon we spotted the Keep, & could see the trail that we had left hours before. The fog was thickening about the Keep, which looked cold & unwelcoming upon its perch atop a rocky hill surrounded by ill-tended fields. I recalled that the river flowed just a few miles behind it, on its’ way to our lands. The thought chilled me with foreboding, so I shook it away. “Make ready, Mishka!” ordered Polset, & I set about preparing Spark for what might be his final burden.

The body of the rider lurched in the saddle, held upright by the lashed willow branches that I had fashioned under his jerkin. The laces that Polset had cut were retied as best I could, & Spark’s coat had been given a dapple of mud to resemble the courier’s missing horse. My pony knew the way to the Keep, & did not tarry when I bade him take the trail. The company took up positions on the highest ground that still offered the cover of the forest, following Spark’s progress. As he turned to take the final lane, the fog was flowing downward to the vale surrounding the outer walls of the tall fortress. As much as I yearned to watch, I felt a need to turn & eye the forests behind, remembering that this was not friendly ground.

“They see him sure, he is in the barrens now”, mumbled Brognor. “Those fogbanks will close him in moment…Bah!” I stole a glance just as the fog seemed to speed up, overtaking the rider & Spark in a heartbeat, then turning round him. Faster & thicker it flowed, til sight of him was taken us. I was mesmerized – the fog seemed a solid thing, a weighty wall which encompassed the lane & the barrens straddling it. So taken was I with the strangeness of the sight that I forgot my duty as rear guard. The next moment, I heard the sharp snap of a twig not 10 paces away, & the hiss of an arrow stung my ear as Ascorle fell dead next to me.

I dove& rolled to my right, drawing my slim blade as I came to rest against an oak root. Lairik & the remaining captains took similar cover in the treeline, steel in hand, forming an arc facing the direction of the assault. Ten eyes scanned the forest, ten ears bent to the winds; none found the target we sought. Lairik motioned for Tambyn to widen our position, & he began to move carefully to my right. I found myself several paces farther into the wood than my companions, yet I dared not try to join them by leaving my nook.

I examined the base of the tree, the structure of the many-burled trunk, & looked up into the branchwork, seeking a better defensive position. The lower branches were shrouded in the pale mist that had formed from the dews, & the burls were wide & gruffly barked beneath them. I began to slowly creep up from my root, keeping to the treeline side of the trunk as I found purchase upon the lowest burls. I stood listening, still clutching my blade in my right hand, holding my breath as I expected the archer to find me at any moment. I heard nothing save the dripping of the water from the leaves, so I dared to gain the first limb of the tree, now twice my height from the ground. The haze here was thickened to a mist, & I was soaked.

My eyes searched the forest floor, carefully, as I had so many times while hunting small game in our wee valley. Thoughts of home clouded my eyes, & I shook my head to clear it. I could see my brother & the 3 captains, widely flanking the body of Ascorle, a moss green arrow standing like a brash young weed among the grasses between the trees. Lairik’s glowering stare proved his disapproval of my actions, yet he dared not call out to me & give up his hiding place. As the mist grew thicker. I stepped out upon the limb. There on the ground, not 3 paces from me, the vapors swirled around the form of a hunched figure, clear & unhidden, yet seeming unaware of my proximity. He was moving almost imperceptibly toward my abandoned nook, his bowstring gripping a moss green arrow, the twin to the one that had taken my friend Ascorle.

In that moment I was taken by a rage that I could not deny. The image of Ascorle was replaced by the body of the rider & the visage of my brother Evanik, whose fate was yet unknown. Grasping the haft of my blade with both hands, I turned its’ point toward the ground, raised it above my head, & leapt toward the archer. He heard my feet leave the limb & swung his eyes up toward the sound, trying to bring the arrow to bear. I thought myself dead, but the point of his arrow did not find me. It was encased in roiling vapors, resisting all his efforts to aim a saving shot. It seemed to me an eternity of falling, a floating descent into death’s hollow. My life at this moment meant nothing: only the path of my blade tip kept my attention.

 

Then I was upon him, & time found me anew. My blade ran true, piercing his jerkin & finding its’ way between his collarbone & shoulder with no more resistance than a whisper. All my weight & speed pressed the steel thru him & into the oak root upon which he crouched. I had him pinned fast as my boots struck the ground, his blood already washing the feet of the oak. I released my sword & struck his cheek with both gloved fists, a hammer blow of loss & anger & rage that shattered bone & ripped my blade thru more of his flesh. Again & again I smote him, again & again I saw the dead form of Ascorle, again & again I saw the face of my fair brother Evanik fading into the hazes. Slowly I became aware that I was held fast in a bear’s grip, & recognized the bison cloak of my brother, Lairik. My gaze went to my gloved hands: they were running with blood, the leather ripped & ragged. It was only then I realized that I was screaming.

 

Lairik dragged me back around the oak to my wee cranny & sat me down upon his robe, as a parent bedding a bairn. My rage took its’ toll, & I fell quickly into restless sleep. In my dreamings I was falling toward the archer, falling & never finding the earth, the eyes of the assassin drilling mine in a stunned silence of knowing that his life was at an end. I knew not how long I slumbered, but awakened to the warmth of a fire at my feet. I imagined myself at home, on a cold wet night, drowsing aside the hearth, my scrolls by my side, unattended.

Then drops of icy cold water found my face as they dripped from the lowermost limbs of the oak, & I was fully awake. I was taken by a sudden panic, that a fire built for my comforting would reveal our position, & I started out from under the cloak. Tambyn reached out to steady me. “Easy now, lad, settle back – all is well…at least as well as it can be. Here.” He reached toward the fire & poured a leather tankard full of hot tea. I sipped & grunted: more than just tea, I found. I looked about, only Tambyn saw I. “On watch, young Mishka. We have scouted, & no more are about.” I croaked, my mouth dry & seared by the tea “The smoke – it will give us away!” Tambyn chuckled without humor “Nary a chance of that, lad. Have another look about!” I did as he bade me, & saw that we were enveloped by a thick fog, impenetrable by my eyes, which rolled ponderously about our campsite.

The smoke from our fire was absorbed by it & did not escape. It formed a nearly perfect circle around the oak. I looked upwards to the limb from which I had made my deadly leap & saw that the fog closed in just above it, obscuring the upper branches of the tree as well as the sky above. Again I recalled what I had done, & waves of revulsion, sorrow, & exhaustion washed over me anew. Tambyn saw my distress & said, “Do not worry, son; we will leave this place at dawn. Rest again – I fear sleep will be precious when again we break this camp.”