The first winds of winter are howling outside of my longhouse on Tisbury. Some of my household are outside attending to shores but most huddle inside for warmth. The smoke lies thick from the hearth we keep burning most days and nights to stay warm. There is a smell of cabbage and roast mutton hanging in the air and above the usual din of the house I can hear my wife try to comfort my oldest son who is crying for some inexplicable reason.
For my part, I can’t complain though. We have plenty of firewood stacked up just outside the house and we have recently slaughtered both sheep and cows so that there are less cattle to feed during winter. The harvest has been good and we will have plenty to eat, and from what mother has told me the peasants are doing alright as well despite the raids earlier this year.
To be quite honest I did not expect to sit her this winter. I did not expect to be able to kiss my wife and lie huddle up close to her during these long nights. I did not expect to get the chance to see my second child be born in a few months.
By all rights I should be dead. For some reason I am not and this has given me a lot to think about. I haven’t been able to explain to Brangwen what waited for me on the other side. I couldn’t admit to her that I wanted to let go and to walk into the otherlands. She has noticed that I have been in a strange mood and she has done her best to poke and prod and care for me to find out what is bothering me.
So who does one turn to when one cannot talk to his wife or to his friends? One turns to the gods or in this case one who understand the gods like few others but is still not afraid to scrutinize them and their actions closely. So I have turned to Athanwyr, the ovate who has taught me much and counselled me several times. He sits next to me, close to the fire and we have just finished talking about the everyday matters of the world. He glances over at me with his dark, inquisitive eyes and gets right to the heart of the matter.
“Tell me what is bothering you Cadry.”
When it is just the two of us he is often informal and ignores using my title. It often annoys me but the man has earned my trust even though he is often inscrutable. I briefly consider waving away his question but for some reason I feel the urge to talk about the very uncomfortable subject of dying.
“A saxon’s spear killed me at the battle of Mearcred Creek.”
Before I can continue, Athanwyr interpolates “Yet here you are, alive and seemingly no worse for the wear. Imagine that.”
I glare at him and his rather glib expression. He has a tendency to pre-empt and mock other people in a rather sarcastic way. Sometimes it is enjoyable but for now it is mostly annoying.
I growl something unintelligible in his direction and try to gather my thoughts.
“I was dead; I am certain of it. The battlefield around me changed and everything slowed down. It was still a field… or maybe a cavern? Any which way, it was full of dead men and women. They had all died a violent and often ignominious death. I could see how my own life’s blood came flowing out of the wound in my throat but for some reason I didn’t feel weaker.”
My hand has involuntarily gone to my newly tattooed throat. Mother have worked hard and has wrought some of her best work to date in the swirls and loops that now cover the ugly scar the defaces the right side of my neck.
Athanwyr has grown more serious and in his eyes I can swear that I see a hunger that craves something beyond this world.
“In that place everything was covered by a cold, unrelenting fog, and I could only vaguely make out shapes that moved around me. I think that there were entrances of some sort in all directions. Some appeared to be illuminated by a strange greenish light and some were dark but somehow I still knew that they were there. There were … things… scenes… taking place within them. I get the feeling that I saw something in there, something that I have forgotten.”
With something almost unpleasantly eager in his voice Athanwyr asks me ”Did you see anyone there? Was anyone present?”
I dig around among those dark memories and try to recollect if anyone was indeed there and suddenly a terrifying memory surfaces.
“I tried to head towards one of the doorways but I couldn’t move. Something was holding me fast. When I looked down I could see that the hands of a dead man were holding me and that his grip was like an iron vise. He stared up at me and it was my father, long since dead, that stared up at me! He spoke to me and said “Not yet!”. Then other dead men and women grabbed me and started to pull me down into the earth.”
I can’t stop shuddering as I remember my father’s face, bereft of all humanity and life. Only his voice was like I remembered it from many years past.
“There was one thing that was highly strange though.”
As I speak these words, I can see Athanwyr leaning closer.
“I caught sight of three odd shapes in the mist just before I was pulled under the ground. I think they were watching, but it didn’t feel like they were part of that place or like they belonged. Then the ground started closing over me and the last thing I saw was starved lips in the gloam with horrid warning gaped wide. And then I awoke and found me there, lying cold on my side.”
Silence lies palpable between us and it is almost like something has entered the longhouse and stolen away all the sounds.
The ovate breaks the silence.
“These are indeed strange things you have witnessed. It sounds like you had set your feet in Annwn. I am not surprised that the gods sent your father to act as a messenger, especially in the light of the summons you and the other three crows received in Sarum. The lady of the cauldron has called you and you can be certain that no ordinary year lies ahead of you. Fulfil the quest she has set before you and She will favour you.”
I have to ask him, for my mind will not give me rest until it has its answers.
“Who were the three shapes?”
Athanwyr looks at me like he is measuring me.
“I cannot say with certainty but you can be sure that I will look for answers. I think that this might be trial for us both in this, though not in the same way.”
His replies are as vague as can be expected. The minds of ovates and druids are tangled, strange things and they never seem to think in a straight line. Maybe he will tell me more at another time.
“What shall I do Athanwyr? These memories haunt me and they will not relinquish their hold on me. I feel like I belonged in the otherlands.”
A look of pity passes over Athanwyrs thin and sharp face before he resumes his usual serious and impassive demeanour.
“That I can at least tell you. The otherlands are strange beyond reckoning and they exert at lure on the living who have been close to them. It is a land of eternal youth, where no one suffers and no one goes hungry. You must break the hold it has on you. Do not spend any more time dwelling on its mysteries fore it will only drive you mad or to your death. Focus instead on this world what awaits you here. Lie with your woman, drink what wine or mead suits you, enjoys the fruits of this winter’s slaughter. Do not overthink, it suits you ill Cadry.”
I try not to smile at his mockery but somehow I can’t help myself. I do not know if I will be able to follow his advice but perhaps it is something to hold on to.
“That at least is something that I can grasp.”
I stand up and leave the ovate to his pondering and walk over to my pregnant wife that has managed comfort our son. I sit down behind her and hold her tight in my arms and some part of me tells me that maybe things will be alright after all.