The lightning that broke the grey sky was more of a dead yellow than silver. Each brilliance cracked and flickered further off, sneaking away behind ridges of hilltops as the storm passed into the westward and south. The rain that had poured for several hours diminished, faltered and ceased. Yet, for a long while afterwards, the pattern of droplets still studded the air: tree, fern and leaf, stick, log and rock were all wet and running with rain. Down in the valley below, lights of tents stood stark, red, gold and yellow, against mist-dappled airs.
Although most of the gathering slept, there were some few scattered voices raised night-songs. Now that the rain had ceased, the more nocturnal of the wizards and other weird folk were stirring themselves into the open–coming out of their tents, and going about new business in the dark hours. Their words and greetings to one another were dim and distant.
All this was visible from an empty grass-thick browline of earth that stood to the north of the tor and fair, just far enough from Crow Hall Wood to fall out of the shadows of those trees. Atop this lonely ridge, no living creature moved or stirred, not a rat or mouse, moth, owl or gnat. The expanse of heavy wet grass was untrod, thick with a few tussocks, some low raggedly wind-torn hawthorns, broken logs, rocks. Nothing else.
But then a movement curled on the air. It was like a spiderweb twisting with the wind, and lighting up with a faint glow, coalescing and unravelling. Out of this faintness of form grew a more substantial shape: an old woman, or something like an old woman, bent near to double and wrapped up heavily under coarse, unpleasant brown hemp clothing. Her face was protrudent almost to the point of seeming goatlike and her ears were unusually large. Trailing from her skirt, there was a tangle of something long, that looked for all the world like a hairy tail, dragging in the mud. Stranger still, her left arm hung much longer than the right, and was covered all over in a coarse, wiry hair. She raised her blotchy yellow eyes to her surrounds, and looked about, as if expecting to see someone else atop the empty brow.
She remained alone for the time it took three flashes of lightning to etch hard gold into the southwest.
Then, to her right a tendril of red appeared, and it flickered, then grew almost like red roots growing out the air, descending, or a veinous network full of pumping, living blood, without a body. Soon, a creature had formed out of this mass too. It was androgynous, neither clearly male, nor female; also ancient, also bent and malformed; its face ugly, set with bulging eyes and a gash of a mouth full of squat yellow teeth. Just as with the other entity, this one had a left arm that was oddly marked, though the marking was more uncanny. Red wetness dribbled down the creature’s left arm, snaking and twining, until the whole of the left hand was red, as if dipped in fresh blood. Fresh blood could not be the actual source of it though, as the running sheet of bright red showed no sign of drying or ceasing. It just continued to bleed in a trickle down the creatures left fingertips, drip, drip, into the earth. “Well met, sister,” said the creature with the red left hand.
“Well met, sibling,” said the old bent woman with the hairy left hand.
They stood wordless then, searching the air, sniffing.
“Wet night,” observed the woman with the hairy hand.
“Storm’s been through,” agreed her sibling. “Better weather tomorrow.”
“That’ll be nice then,” she answered, then said, “Ah, he approaches us by land and not by wind or raindrop.”
Coming up the hill was a tall shadow and in the midst of this tall shadow, there seemed to be a giant, muscular, curved form, full of hard flesh, striding powerfully. It’s eyes were the dim fires of lights a thousand ells out to sea, drowning in darkest fog. It looked like a demon out of the elder age of the world, but as it neared, it diminished, growing smaller and smaller, even as the shadow around it grew thicker and larger, rising up, like wings rising up. This continued until the creature arrived at the gathering as a withered old man, bent, bearded with a grey lichenous rot-tangles, white-skinned and eyes nothing but hollows, filled with cobwebs and shadows and dim drowning light. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, shrivelled right down to the bone so that waxy skin was stretched over a dead frame of joints.
“Well met, sister,” he said to the old woman with the hairy arm, and “Well met, sibling,” he said to the creature with the red-blood hand.
They both song-voiced at once, “Well met, brother.”
He cleared his throat then and said, softly. “Let the old words be spoken so that we three know that each of us is true and not an imposture sent. I am one such as he who was killed in the field of birds.”
The old woman with the hairy arm then murmured, “And I am one such as she who died in the sea cave, and had my head cut away and placed in darkness under the earth.”
They turned to look at the third in their company. The red-handed creature whispered, “And I am one such as them who was strangled with a leather cord and sunk deep in brackish bogs.”
The dead-armed one with the pall of shadow nodded. “Then we are all who we are. That is good. Long years have split us, and we have gone asunder, searching. This hour was appointed to reconvene. What news have you both? For I have none. The rumours have led me to naught in the west and south.”
“And this is true for me also,” said the creature with the red hand. “In the east I have found nothing but empty lies and false fears. What of you, sister? Have you found truth at the end of tales?”
She looked at them with his discoloured ochre-tinted eyes and said in a low rattle of a voice. “Aye, but for me, I have found out something more wondrous and more terrible. In the north. One of the Sorthemen has it, or a part of it at least.”
The other two drew in hard hisses and gasps.
“It is true then,” said red-hand. “It has been found. And in Sorthe? That land was scoured a thousand times over. It cannot have been there.”
“I did not claim it was,” said old woman hairy-hand. “I said only a Sortheman has it now. I do not know where he got it from. It is one of the Princelings of Sorthe.”
“That would explain the absence of the four prince-magicians of Sorthe then,” said dead-hand, from inside his pall of shadows. “Steps must be taken. The Sorthemen are savages. They cannot be allowed to make use it. Not ever. Such use would break the world.”
“Or he might give it to another?” suggested the blood-red hand. “That might be worse. Is it true that Him of the Pied Cloak has come out of the farthest north?”
The hairy-armed old woman nodded, a short, curt nod. “Aye and aye again.”
“That would be worse,” agreed dead-hand. “What then to do? We cannot leave this be. A strange sickly filth of lies has entered all the world’s oracles. They cannot be consulted, not with any trust to truthfulness. The Old Lady of Embers is missing, and you both know what that may well mean.”
They both nodded, sagely, worry on their strange, animalistic faces.
“Can we call on any of the Courts of the Faer? Have we any allies left there?”
Now red-hand shook his head. “Nay. I went about and sought out our kin. They are tangled up in their own plots and schemes. The whole of the world is tied into knots by false prophecies and baseless foretelling. No help will come from that quarter.”
“So then, it is to us that the matter falls.” Dead-hand sighed and looked down at the view of tents and lanterns. “The three Goddesses of this place will stop us the moment they think we have plans to interfere with the moot. It is their sole duty. No pleading or cunning words will avert their wrath.”
“Then we must be quiet as mice,” said old hairy-hand.
“And quick as hares,” said him of the blood-red fingers.
“Or else dead as a rotting sheep,” said the one with the withered arm. Laughter rung from him then, like air from old broken billows. “More dead than we have ever been.”
“So then,” muttered the old lady with the hairy hands and dragging tail. “Let us make some plans.”
The other two said “Aye,” and they fell to whispers amongst themselves. Lightning spat and shot more distantly, and the clouds gradually uncurled themselves, and cleared away to let free a few weak stars. As a storm-drenched night slid into a cool, rainless pre-dawn, the three dark shapes on the hilltop bent heads together and spoke in hushed secrets.