SCREAMS RANG THROUGH the freezing night air.
Bran leaped up from where he’d been dozing by the fire. His worn moccasins scattered snow into the low flames, which hissed and spat in fury. He felt just as exhausted as when he’d settled down to sleep. He hadn’t slept well for days; bad dreams about a wild ocean storm, and a sky full of fire, and a pale face framed with red hair.
Dreams about Keyli.
With his good hand, Bran grabbed the flint axe from his belt, then hurried to where Talus was standing on the cliff edge. Away from the fire, the air was bitter. Bran pulled his bearskin tight around him. His breath clouded briefly before freezing on to his beard. The screams came again, stronger now. His heart pounded against his ribs.
‘What is it?’ he said.
‘Trouble,’ Talus replied.
The wind whipped Talus’s robe open, exposing his skinny body to the elements. Bran wondered how he could stand the cold. But Talus was strange. After two years Bran should have been used to his behaviour, but he wasn’t.
Mindful of his footing, Bran peered over the cliff edge. Below them the sea breathed, not stormy like the one in his dream, just restless under the stars. Even at this distance its presence made him uneasy. Once he’d loved the ocean. Not any more.
Bran took a deep, cold breath. Gradually his heart slowed. But the screaming grew louder.
A little way offshore lay a small island, a random collision of cliff and turf and stunted willow, all of it smoothed white by snow. It looked like a submerged and sleeping beast.
A village crowded the island’s lower slopes. It looked like many he and Talus had seen on their long journey north: solid protection in this icebound land. The houses were sunk into the landscape, so that only the low domed roofs were visible. Smoke rose from holes in the roofs. Inland, a long barrow marked the place where the tribe communed with the dead.
People were pouring out of the houses. They looked tiny, ants fleeing the nest. It was they who were screaming.
‘I suppose you want to go down there,’ Bran said, knowing the answer already.
‘Of course! If we set off now, we will reach the causeway at low tide. Then it will be easy to cross.’
Bran rubbed his aching head. Whatever tragedy had struck these villagers, it felt remote to him. He had troubles of his own. ‘Causeway?’
‘Look with your eyes, Bran. See? That dark line beneath the water?’
‘All I see is an island, Talus.’
‘Looking is more than just seeing. I suppose it is possible you might learn that one day.’
Bran’s fist tightened on the axe haft. This wasn’t the first time he’d felt the urge to bury it in his friend’s head. Not that he would ever hurt Talus.
Except hurting Talus was exactly what he was planning to do.
How would Talus react when Bran told him what he’d decided? Bran didn’t know. He just knew the time had come to say what he needed to say.
He opened his mouth, but the words refused to come out.
Talus took a step nearer the edge of the cliff. He was a head taller than Bran, and stick-thin. His eyes, bright and alert, stared down at the sea. It confounded Bran that in the middle of winter his travelling companion never wore a hat, despite having not a single hair on his head.
‘That island is surrounded by more than just water, Bran,’ Talus said. ‘It is surrounded by fear and mistrust. Its people are alone and afraid. They need help.’
‘How can you possibly know that?’
‘How can you not? Think about the other tribes we have met in this northern land. Where do they live?’
Bran wasn’t in the mood for Talus’s games. Nor did he have the energy to argue.
‘I don’t know. In the glens, I suppose.’
‘Exactly! In the glens. I see you are at least half-awake. The glens offer shelter from the hard weather and the hunting is good. But these people choose to live on an island. Instead of comfort, they choose isolation. Why?’
Bran regarded the snowbound landscape. High hills rose swiftly into even higher mountains. The skyline was coarse and craggy, like a row of broken teeth.
‘I wouldn’t call any part of this land comfortable,’ he said.
‘Look near the island shore. See the maze they have built there?’
All Bran could see was a pattern of shadows marking the island’s terrain. If Talus said it was a maze, who was he to argue?
‘And you will of course see the totems placed around the shore.’ Talus pointed.
Bran saw little dots. Maybe they had faces. ‘Spirits of the afterdream. Nothing unusual in that.’
‘Indeed. But do you see their expressions? They are twisted and their mouths are wide open. They are screaming, Bran.’
Bran shivered, not just at the winter wind. Maybe the screams they could hear weren’t coming from the villagers at all. Maybe they were coming from the totems. Not the screams of the living, but the screams of the dead.
‘You can see all that from here?’
‘How can you not? Come! We must hurry. It will soon be dawn. But… I do not believe you will be needing that.’
Talus placed his hand on Bran’s axe and pushed it down to his side. Bran hadn’t even realised he was still brandishing it. Feeling a little foolish, he hooked the weapon back on his belt while Talus went to kick snow on the fire. The flames sputtered and died, and black smoke wafted skywards. The peat that had fuelled the fire hadn’t burned well, but he was already missing its warmth.
Bran took a deep breath and held it in his chest. The air was ice in his lungs. He exhaled, making a fist of white vapour that crackled into frost the instant it touched the air. The screams were still rising from the island, chopped by the wind into staccato bursts of anguish. They were nothing to do with him.
Time to speak.
‘I’m not going.’
Talus was busying himself with their packs, stowing their few belongings and making ready to leave. He didn’t look up.
Bran stroked the flint head of the axe with the fingers of his right hand. His left hand was curled in a useless fist in the folds of his bearskin. The cold made it ache.
‘I don’t mean I’m not going to the island,’ he went on. ‘Well, I do mean that. I’m not going there either. I mean I’m not going anywhere. North, I mean. Talus…’
Bran stopped. How could he say this without it getting all tangled up? And why wasn’t Talus helping him out?
He began again.
‘It’s nearly the solstice. It’s been two years since we set out on this journey, Talus. On this search. And we’re no nearer the end. I can’t do this any more. Two years is… Talus, it’s long enough.’
‘Long enough for what?’ Talus was rummaging in his rabbitskin pouch.
‘Long enough to grow very tired.’
Bran wanted to say more, but he didn’t have the words. Talus was the one who was clever with words.
TWO YEARS HAD passed since the night Bran had met Talus, that night when the winter storm had whipped the sea to a frenzy. When fire had rained down from the sky and Bran’s life had changed forever. The fire had burned his left hand and turned it into a useless, scarred claw, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The fire had taken his beautiful Keyli away from this world and into the next. Sometimes Bran’s crippled hand still ached, but the ache of Keyli’s absence was one that never went away.
Bran pinched his eyes shut and wished the memory gone. Keyli’s death lived in his dreams but he couldn’t bear to have it in his waking mind. Talus knew what had happened—he’d been there, after all—but Bran had never told the story to another living soul. Had never even told it to himself, not really.
Maybe one day…
This was his true burden, so much heavier than the leather pack he carried on his back: the old memory of that terrible night. He’d carried the memory a long way north already—so far. With every dawn he’d seen the land around them grow colder and more bleak, settlements more sparse, prey animals harder to find.
Now the land itself was beginning to break apart. The coast had become a shattered mess of inlets and islands. Even the mountains were breaking up. Yet north they continued to trek, even as the solid ground fell away beneath them. Soon the land would be altogether gone, and only the sea would remain.
And Bran was weary—more weary than he’d ever been before.
‘I DON’T THINK there’s any point in going on,’ Bran said. ‘The journey gets harder each day. I think… the time has come to end it.’
Talus faced him, his face unreadable, saying nothing.
‘We don’t even know if it’s possible to get where we’re going,’ Bran went on. ‘And even if it is, what will we find there? What if the old tales are… well, just tales?’
Talus continued to say nothing.
‘What if there’s nothing in the north at all?’
Still no response.
Confounded by his friend’s silence, Bran looked out to sea again. ‘We haven’t seen the northlight for six whole moons now,’ he said. ‘We followed it all this way but now it’s abandoned us. We were wrong. I was wrong. If you want to go on, that’s all right, but I…’
Talus drew himself up to his full height. He smoothed his hand over his bald head. He was looking past Bran, for some reason unable to meet his friend’s eye.
‘Are you trying to say goodbye, Bran?’
Bran pressed the heel of his good hand against his eyes. He would not cry.
‘Two years,’ he said, substituting anger for grief. ‘I’ve followed you on this cursed trail for two whole years. Well, now the trail’s gone cold. You go on if you want, but I’m going back. I’m going home, Talus. I can’t follow you any more.’
Three long strides brought Talus close. He was smiling. He put his bony hands on Bran’s shoulders. Still he was looking not at his companion but past him.
‘Bran,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know it is I who am following you?’
Bran’s tears turned slowly to crystals of ice. ‘You can’t even look me in the eye,’ he said.
‘Why would I,’ said Talus, ‘when I can look at that?’ He turned Bran round to face the ocean. There was unexpected strength in those scrawny arms.
Bran gasped. Something was happening in the pre-dawn sky. Something glorious. Green streamers rose from the northern horizon, expanded, became vast glowing rivers of light. The light was in constant motion, like flowing liquid. Its colour shifted from green to blue to orange to red.
It came towards them.
There were moving images inside the light: a string of women dancing in line, a shoal of iridescent fish, an eye, a skein of blood, beads of silver dew or sweat, a burning horse. The pictures formed and flowed and melted away, always changing, never still. Were they spirits or dreams? It didn’t matter.
The shining parade rolled ever nearer, giddy in its ever-changing round. Now it was vast, all-encompassing. It poured around the little island and exploded over the cliff, over Bran’s head. It met the mountains and dwarfed them. It was unearthly and welcome and entirely wonderful.
‘The northlight,’ Bran murmured.
The ache had gone from his hand, and from his head. Even from his heart. He still felt exhausted, but the coldness of the air, suddenly, was exhilarating.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he said.
‘It always was,’ said Talus.
The sea continued to breathe below them, in and out, caressing the shore. Above them flowed another ocean: an ocean of light. Its power rained down on Bran, filling him from his toes to the crown of his head. Suddenly anything was possible.
Talus handed Bran his pack. ‘Do you still wish to say goodbye?’
Already the eerie light was fading, washed away by the dawn that had started to creep over the mountains. Such fleeting magic. Bran didn’t care. He’d seen it again. The northlight had returned.
‘Is it true what they say, Talus? That love survives death?’
The last traces of the northlight danced in Talus’s eyes.
‘On the night we first met, Bran, you did me a great service, at enormous cost to yourself. In return, I promised to show you a sight no man has seen, to tell you a story no man has heard, to set you walking on a path no man has trod. A path, perhaps, that will lead you to the peace you crave. It is a promise I intend to keep. And so I ask you again: do you still wish to say goodbye?’
The last shreds of the northlight vanished into the brightening sky. Pale pink tendrils twisted briefly, making a shape that might have been a ghostly face, a phantom hand: a woman, beckoning.
Bran hefted his pack on to his shoulder. ‘I suppose I could go a little further. But, Talus, what do we do when we run out of land?’
Talus clapped him on the back.
‘Why, Bran, isn’t it obvious? We find ourselves a boat! Now, shall we see what all that screaming is about?’
As they followed the narrow track down the cliff towards the shore, the sky to the east turned livid red. Once, when he looked that way, Bran thought he saw a figure standing on a ridgetop, silhouetted against the dawn, watching them.
But he couldn’t be sure.
Copyright © Graham Edwards 2014