In the endless darkness, seen only by the eyes of the gods, a single form is suspended. A slim, small body, female, yet encased in supple hide – the form-fitted second skin of a warrior. Weapons are attached at intervals; a sword and staff slung across her back, knives concealed at hip and ankle, whip-like cord wound from shoulder to wrist, embracing the muscled arms. Long red-gold hair escapes from its bonds to curl around the pale, freckled face. A young sun blooming in the darkness, as Connar, god of the life-flame, watches. The face of the god is unreadable, but not still. Sadness, pride, anguish, hope, joy, despair, love and rage chase across his face like the tides, continually shifting and changing; unknowable.
All around the still, silent form, others slowly fade into existence. First one, than another, until the darkness is filled with a blaze of color; men, women, and children arriving to fill the void with suspended life.
Connar sighs, gazing across the human constellations, and gestures. The crowd blinks out of existence in an instant, and the darkness is complete once more.
“What happened? I demand an answer! Where are we?” Camlin had the biggest mouth in the Connarii tribe. Consequently, his cries drowned out the three thousand five hundred and thirty-seven other alarmed voices. Their owners milled about in sleepy confusion, and a not a few in embarrassment, as they exchanged inadequate sleepwear for more modest or functional garb, hunting through the piles of household goods heaped about in the shifting mists where chests and hooks had been only moments before.
“Shut your mouth, Camlin.” That was Edana, glaring daggers beneath blazing hair that refused to be braided back and tamed. She would have enjoyed following up with a more pointed attack – literally, one hand on a dagger – had she not been so distracted. The lingering shreds of a dream unsettled her – something about darkness, loneliness…
Her younger sister’s voice jolted Edana back to attention.
“Please, Camlin. You needn’t add to the confusion.”
Aislynn’s remonstrance went unheeded as Camlin stormed over to the girls’ father Toryn, king of the Connarii.
“Well?” He demanded. “What happened?”
The old man sighed. Camlin had never been the most tractable member of the tribe, and what he was about to hear would very likely incite him to new levels of youthful belligerence. No way around it though; waking up to find the whole world swept out from under you tended to stick in people’s minds, and he’d have to offer some kind of explanation, and worse, a plan of action, sooner or later.
Better make it sooner.
Toryn sighed again, feeling worn through and wistful for days gone by. Days when the Connarii had been strong, their kings majestic and their people happy and undoubtedly much, much less difficult. Camlin was still trying to stare him down, jaw clenched, hands fisted, his poor little brother cowering behind him…
All Toryn wanted to do was go back to bed and wake up, oh, say 200 or 300 years ago, when the Connarii had presided over rich holdings across the west of the Islands, before their wealth and dominion had ebbed to the southernmost spit of land along the Cornish coast… and now, even that appeared to have been stolen. Yes, better to have ruled in centuries past, rather than go down in history as the king who lost it all. Toryn would have happily gone back to sleep and never opened his eyes again. Instead, he held up a hand and tried for imperious gravity.
“A moment, Camlin. Aislynn. Edana. With me.” Toryn gestured to his daughters and moved away from the crowd, trying to hide his eagerness to get some distance from the fearful voices and panicked eyes. Sleepiness was shifting into subdued alarm as people tried to work out what, if any, danger they might be in.
The leader of the Connarii waited, tracing the braided gold of the torc around his neck, a brilliant symbol of his rule, and trying not to look like it was choking him, until Edana and Aislynn joined him in the silvery curtain of swirling mists. There, the sounds of the tribe were muffled and the shuffling, wide-eyed people partially obscured from sight. The mists also blurred the ground, making it impossible to determine its composition, and rendering the strange country utterly featureless. The damp air carried no salt or green rot, no hint of sea or shore, and Toryn couldn’t help running his tongue along the top of his mouth, feeling the cottony un-taste of the curiously empty air.
Toryn turned to look at his youngest daughter. Aislynn suited this eerie new landscape a little too well, and he suppressed a shiver. Both his daughters had been waiting with him that night, awaiting the hand of fate, and were attired accordingly. Aislynn wore the traditional garb of her position: a silver shift under a black-feathered cloak. As clan bard and seer, she wore the cumbersome ceremonial costume with all due honor and respect, the youngest ever to hold that post. Her long hair, the same inky hue as her cloak, hung unbound beneath gossamer veils trailing from a delicate silver diadem, and low on her smooth forehead rested a shining diamond that seemed to emit a steady light of its own, a light which winked and danced where it reflected deep within Aislynn’s eyes. The effect was otherworldly indeed, but at twelve, Aislynn was still so slight as to be barely able to move in the ceremonial garb. The braided torc at her throat, symbol of her nobility, glimmered as she turned her head to scan the mists, before directing her intent gaze at her father.
“Aislynn?” He asked. Toryn wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to hear what she had to say.
The swirling silver mists reflected in Aislynn’s eyes as she responded: “Our worst fears have undoubtedly come to pass.”
“You mean… Is that even possible…?”
“The Otherworld, father. We have been banished to the Otherworld. King Bres and the Danann Council of Druids have thrown us out of our lands, as promised.”
“Impossible.” Edana said, impatient. “Battle-Chief Corwin would never fail, not against that pack of deceitful snakes. He probably has the council member’s heads on stakes as we speak. Our warriors are unbeatable.”
Edana’s shining eyes evinced her adoration of her hero, Corwin the Courageous. She spun a small knife absently as she spoke, flipping it in the air and catching it in the same hand without looking. Unlike her sister, she hadn’t earned her costume or the position that it suited; though she wore a warrior’s garb, she was crown princess, not the battle-chief she wished herself to be. Toryn had allowed the outfit on the grounds that it might be practical in the event of attack, and was already regretting the decision as Aislynn responded to her more volatile sibling.
“Then how have we come to find ourselves in this land of mists in the middle of the night? The entire tribe was asleep in their beds – now they are here. Foul magic is the only explanation.”
“She’s right, Edana.” Toryn said, covering his eyes with one broad hand as he heaved a sigh. “There is nothing else to be done. I must speak to the people.”
Aislynn studied her father in considering silence. He bore the weight of her gaze, the weight of generations of seers that stared out from her luminous eyes. It was a strange thing to have your child as your most trusted advisor, but so, it seemed, had Connar willed it.
“Tell them we will gather another war party!” Edana interrupted. “Tell them we will return, and fight for our lands! Tell them that we will not abandon our own to the grasp of the dark druids of Danu. Tell them that the Connarii are mighty, and will surely triumph over their enemies!”
Camlin edged towards them out of the mists where he’d been eavesdropping, smiling. “Your lovely daughter has an excellent point, Toryn…”
Toryn stared down the young man, who coughed and continued more deferentially “…Your Majesty. I have been speaking to a couple of the men as we wait for your… instruction. We’re eager for a chance at whoever has so rudely disturbed us this night. Allow me to lead a party against our enemies – After all…”
Toryn raised one hand sharply, cutting him off. Resentment stirred in the boy’s eyes, but he lowered his head in a bow and stepped back. Toryn waited a few moments, watching until the boy had retreated out of earshot, before turning back to the argument with Edana.
“What would you have me do? Our best warriors are gone, and since we’re here, presumably dead or as good as. Even if I wanted to attack, how do you propose to engage the enemy? What route would you take? Do you know the path to the Danaan council?”
“Father, you don’t mean that you really believe that this is the Otherworld! That’s just a myth.” Edana set her jaw mutinously, no longer flipping the small dagger, but clenching it in a firm guard position. “This is just a – a bad fog. It’ll clear up by morning – and I’ll have the war band ready by then – just say the word.”
Though her posture was at the ready, even eager for battle, Edana’s gaze was as much pleading as it was challenging. Tory could see how much she wanted him to say yes, but what she wanted was impossible.
“You’ll have the what ready by morning? A fog, you say?” He stared at Edana, equal parts astonished and irritated. “Stop denying the obvious, Edana. We’re not going back.”
“Then you’ve found your answer, father.” Aislynn said.
“Eh? What’s that?”
“There is no going back. So, we go forward; find new lands, make a new home for ourselves.”
Toryn considered this. When he’d sent the warriors, he’d hoped for the best. To lose everything; centuries of Connariian civilization, the citadel and lands – what lands were left – not to mention, apparently, his finest warriors… it hadn’t borne thinking about. But it was all, unquestionably, gone.
“There is somewhere to advance towards, then?”
“According to the lore, yes. This is just the beginning of the Otherworld, a sort of in-between place. Like the shoreline where the tide flows, neither fully sea nor land but shared between the two. Eventually we should come to more… um… distinctive places.”
“You don’t sound so sure.” Edana needled her younger sister, upsetting her poise as only a sibling could.
“Well, as you so kindly pointed out, sister dearest,” Aislynn snapped back, “we are relying on myths. True they may be, but rarely precise. So, we tell the truth as we know it. The people need to have some idea of what has happened, and what will happen next. They need something to hold onto.”
“Yes, yes,” Toryn joined in, catching up to the direction of Aislynn’s thoughts. “Our people need to be reassured, their spirits renewed, their energies channeled. We tell them of the treachery of the Danann, then move on to direct their thoughts outwards, to the future. If they’re focusing on the task ahead, they won’t have time to worry over the injustices of the past. But can we offer them hope without promising what we cannot deliver?”
“There is always hope.” Aislynn said, composed once more, her soft voice deepening as it took on the gravity of a seer.
“There has always been more than darkness in the world, and the presence of light is ever near. Offer them hope, father. Promise them a better life – they have only to seek after it, and in time, it shall be theirs. They-”
Aislynn stopped suddenly, her face still and blank. The diamond on her forehead flashed once, and began to brighten steadily until it illuminated the mist in a sphere around her about three feet across. She dropped to her knees stiffly and her head drooped towards the mist-blanketed ground so that her long dark hair fell over her face.
Edana and Toryn gaped at Aislynn for a moment. Toryn reached out a hand, then paused and looked at Edana helplessly.
“Is this part of…?” He whispered. Edana glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes, her brow furrowed. Her sulky expression shifted to one of intense focus.
“I’m not really sure. I’ve never paid that much attention to her special training, it’s not like I’d have anything to do with it. I’ve always thought of it more as an honorific title. Besides, you know I never hang around to watch that sort of thing – music, stories, stuff…”
“Wouldn’t have hurt you any to pay a little more attention to your studies.”
“I study! Combat… Anyways, what about her?” Father and daughter looked at Aislynn doubtfully. Truth be told, though she was a headache, Toryn had always felt he understood his eldest best. Such a pity she hadn’t been born a son. And both, he was sure, would have turned out much better if only their mother had survived…
“Well, she’s breathing, and conscious, since she hasn’t fallen over yet.” Edana said finally, breaking into Toryn’s regret.
Father and daughter hovered awkwardly, afraid to touch Aislynn as she quivered and murmured incoherently. When she finally spoke again, her voice had changed nearly beyond recognition. It was low and had a weight, a power to it that spread heavily in warmly rippling waves like syrup.
“A time of darkness and of light for my blessed people.” The voice intoned, using Aislynn as a conduit. Her mouth moved slowly, and not in time with the words, while her eyes stared fixedly at the ground, though it was hard to see past the glare of the jewel on her forehead.
“The children of Connar return from their sojourn among the children of Danu, but who among them remembers the true path home? Great strife, great pain, great joy, great deeds await. Sorrow and gladness, death and glorious new life. Through the strife will come a new Hope. Can the warriors heal; can the weak repair the hurts of the worlds; can the unknowing wage their blind war against the forces of the chasm? Take up your arms and set yourselves; danger is near, and with it opportunity. Strength will be found within my people – hold to one another and set your faces against the darkness, and you will triumph. Be ever ready to find good, and constantly on guard against evil.