Read The Book of the Crowman Online

Authors: Joseph D'Lacey

Tags: #Crowman, #Black Dawn, #post-apocalyptic, #earth magic, #dark fantasy

The Book of the Crowman (2 page)

BOOK: The Book of the Crowman
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2

As the sun sets behind the hovels and squats on the far side of the river in Shep Afon, Mr Keeper and Carrick Rowntree sit on the soft silt and smoke their pipes beside a small fire. A little farther up the riverbank, wrapped in a blanket, Megan sleeps, exhausted by the effects of the sacrament and the journey it took her on. Sometimes she murmurs or cries out, kicking weakly at the sandy earth and causing Mr Keeper to cast her a concerned glance.

“We could take a room at one of the inns,” he says. “She’s been through a lot.”

Carrick looks unconcerned.

“What could be more renewing than being cradled in the arms of the Earth Amu?” he says.

Mr Keeper shakes his head.

“I know. It’s stupid of me. But she’s been through such a lot. And she’s still so young. I want to… make it up to her. She deserves a reward.”

“A night spent on one of Shep Afon’s splintery pallets is no reward for one who seeks the Crowman. Look at her, Aaron. She’s at home right where she is. Besides,” says Carrick, patting something hidden inside his tunic. “You know as well as I do that Megan has already taken her reward.”

For a while there is no sound but the plunge and slop of the market town’s creaking waterwheels and the distant murmur of trader’s voices raised in cheer as they throng the taverns around the hub.

“It took me years to see our work as anything other than a curse,” Mr Keeper says eventually. “Even now there are days when I think things might have been simpler if I’d stayed in my apa’s smithy. He was a bastard to me and never taught me a damn thing worth repeating but I’d have known, of a morning, what was in store for me between sunrise and nightfall. Hell, Carrick, I’d be happily shoeing horses now. Making pokers and mending gates, instead of worrying about the future. And her.”

“You’d have your own children, Aaron. You’d be just as worried about them and just as worried about the future. We Keepers are folk, plain as anyone else. The only difference is the knowledge we hold and the burden it bestows upon us.”

Mr Keeper taps the ash from the bowl of his pipe and refills it. He lights it with a stick from their fire. As the light fades from the day, the glow of the flames picks out the deepening creases in his forehead, around his eyes and mouth. He looks at his old master.

“Carrick…” He hesitates for long moments. “The story has been eroded over the generations. The people tell it wrong around their hearths when evening comes. They don’t understand the Crowman like they used to. If we lose the thread of his life, we’re finished. You know that. All of this rests on her shoulders now.” Mr Keeper takes a long pull on his pipe stem. “It sometimes strikes me as unreasonable that an innocent must carry such a load.”

“There are no mistakes in this world. She’s where she’s meant to be.”

Mr Keeper’s eyes flash.

“Don’t try to placate me, Carrick. Those are worn out words. They have no meaning now. Nothing is certain. Nothing is ‘meant to be’.”

The old man sighs but when Mr Keeper glances over it’s a smile he sees on Carrick Rowntree’s face.

“Listen, Aaron, if it makes you feel any better, I was just as concerned about you.”

“Really?”

“Of course. I lost a great deal of sleep over it. But you should understand that it’s absolutely right and proper to fret about your life’s work. Our work is the Black Feathered Path and we can’t help but care for those who travel it. If we didn’t, well, all this would be nothing more than a joke. A bad one.” Carrick Rowntree glances at Megan’s huddled form. “The girl is strong. She is equal to the task. Guide her right and you’re giving everyone a chance at the future.” The old man shakes his head, again good-naturedly. “You’re no different than when you came to me, Aaron, all those years ago. A boy who held a vision. What did I always tell you?”

“Don’t be distracted by what others are doing. Concentrate on what you’re doing.”

“Exactly. You need to do the same now. Get your part in all this right and Megan will get hers right. It has to be that way around or nothing will work.”

Mr Keeper clamps his pipe between his teeth and scoots closer to his old master so that he can whisper.

“She’s a young woman, Carrick. The first there’s ever been. It’s not as simple as working with a lad. Everything I do or say, it has to be correct. And I can’t just give her a beating when she gets it wrong like you used to do with me.”

The old man chuckles.

“It’s not funny,” says Mr Keeper. “I have to think carefully before I speak and act. On every single occasion. And I have to maintain a certain… distance. It would be so much more comfortable if it was a boy.”

“No it wouldn’t. Lads are troublesome. They don’t concentrate and they think they know better than you do. They’ll earn themselves a beating every day given half the chance. Just like you did.” Carrick takes Mr Keeper’s arm in his old fingers. “Listen to me, Aaron. As a friend. What you have with Megan is unprecedented. It’s as much a challenge for you as it is for her and that is absolutely as it should be. Guiding her, teaching her our ways as you do, you are forced to maintain a sacred mindset throughout. You are required to respect the girl as you respect… who?”

Mr Keeper blinks.

“Are you testing me?”

“Indeed I am. Answer the question, Aaron.”

Mr Keeper’s anger rises.

“Listen Carrick, there’s too much water under the bridge for this. How dare you sit there and think you can treat me like a...” The answer comes to him and Mr Keeper’s annoyance vanishes. “Great Spirit,” he whispers. “Oh dear sweet heaven above.”

“Do you see?” asks the old man.

Very slowly, Mr Keeper nods.

“I don’t know why I never saw it before.”

“Because it was right in front of you, Aaron. That’s how it always is. The Earth Amu has sent a girl child. Even in the Black Dawn the time of men was waning. It was men whose ideas forced the Crowman from blackness into existence. And though we’ve changed, made amends and redressed the balance to some degree, men alone cannot heal the wounds they inflicted. Only a woman can do that. I’ve seen things in the weave, Aaron. Women already wearing the mantle of Keeper in many lands across the water. But this girl,” Carrick nods in Megan’s direction. “Well, she is different – special. And that is why, if she can complete the path, Megan will be the one who changes our world forever, bringing harmony where even the Keepers have failed to find it. Even now, Aaron, there are factions out there in our land, all men, who search for the lost knowledge, who thirst for its resurrection. And they are dedicated. They will not stop and we must find a way to deal with them.”

“But what in heaven’s name can one young woman do against all that, Carrick?”

“The fact that neither of us knows the answer should be reason enough to realise that it is time for a daughter of the land to take her turn. This is what the Earth Amu wants. It’s what the Crowman wants. And it’s the reason you and I exist, Aaron. Everything we’ve ever done and the wrongs of every generation before us will be met here and now by this girl. And it is up to you to train her right and well or all is lost.” Carrick Rowntree’s fingers clasp harder over Mr Keeper’s arm. “Hold your commitment, Aaron. Continue to lead her as you have thus far. Give her the best chance you can, and she in turn will give us a chance. One last chance for us all.”

 

Megan stands on the silty river bank watching Mr Keeper and Carrick Rowntree and listening to their hushed conversation. She sees her own blanket-wrapped form, curled in exhaustion close by, and senses the ache in her belly even though for now she is disembodied, her spirit abroad within the weave.

The seepage between her legs is strong and steady and it will soon be time to change the cloth she surreptitiously placed there before collapsing into sleep. One thing is immediately clear: neither Mr Keeper nor his teacher can see her in the weave, even though that very afternoon they both travelled with her, quietly keeping watch over her in the guise of two wrens as she searched for the Crowspar. It was soon after she returned that her bleed began, and she is in no doubt that the Keepers’ blindness is due to her moon. Her womanhood increases her abilities in the weave: Silence. Invisibility. Who knows what more?

I’m free!

Her delight, however, is brief. What has passed between the two elders is enough to clip these newfound secret wings. Now that the men have fallen into silence, Megan decides she has heard enough. The only power she holds right now is the power to flee, to be away from the weight of destiny, if only for a while.

She turns from her guardians and takes a few tentative steps up the bank toward the rocks that lead up to Shep Afon’s hub and the now deserted market place. Glancing back she sees neither Mr Keeper nor Carrick Rowntree look up from their spiral of worries. Climbing the rocks is easy. Though her body is heavy with fatigue and the lingering effects of the sacrament, her spirit is light and fleet of foot. In seconds she stands on the wall separating the market from the river, finding herself between two worlds. One is the world she knows, the world where Mr Keeper is her guide and protector. The other is the new world, the weave, the byways of which she has never trodden entirely alone.

She hops down into the deserted hub where not a scrap of waste from the day’s trading remains. Even the beggars and stray dogs have moved on and the only noise now comes from the inns and taverns that line the hub.

Megan hesitates.

All this freedom and no idea where to begin. She closes her eyes for a moment and waits for a draw or ripple in the weave. It is barely a blink before she senses a glow among the inns and the pull that accompanies it. She takes a step into the marketplace but stops to look back over the low boundary wall. The Keepers seem very small and far away even though if she spoke quietly they would be able to hear.

She turns her back on them.

 

The boards and trestles that the traders leased for their day of commerce are now stacked in stone archways out of the weather. The hub of Shep Afon is a broad, perfect ring of compacted grit nestling in a semi-circle of the river’s meander, the inns, taverns and other premises forming the opposite half of the circle. At the centre of the market place, Megan stops, opening herself to prompts from the weave. When a distracted wind skitters across the deserted expanse, Megan hears the voices of a thousand stallholders, their songs and cries now whispered in the body of the breeze.

One voice, that of a woman, is clearer than all the rest.

Save us all. The girl’s got the Scarecrow in her.

The pull from the weave intensifies and Megan begins to walk again, her pace quickening. She makes for a slim property, sandwiched between two inns. The building is timber-framed, its front wall formed in bulging sections of dun coloured daub, as though the inns on each side are crushing it. There is no sign to say what manner of business it houses, but to be in the commercial centre of the village, Megan assumes some sort of trade must occur on the premises.

She approaches the warped, splintering door and is about to knock when it opens and two men stumble out. Trying to support each other and failing, the pair blunder right through Megan and collapse to the ground, laughing. She shivers, nauseated by the sensation, but the men have no awareness of her whatsoever.

“I’ve had better donkeys,” slurs one.

“I’ve had better… weasels,” says the other.

“Weasels?”

“Er, yeah. Big, fat stripy weasels.”

“You mean badgers?”

“Badgers. Yeah.”

The two men roll around, laughing so hard they can’t get up.

“You can say what you like ’bout Shep Afon’s dubious… snatch rental… ’stablishments,” says the larger of the two men, with difficulty. He gains his feet and hauls his thinner friend upright. “But the beer’s bloody excellent. Let’s have another pint.”

The drunks stagger away leaving a yeasty, sweaty reek in their wake. The door has closed behind them but the pull from behind it is even stronger now. Megan closes her eyes and passes through the weathered wood like a breath through gauze.

Beyond it, oil lamps illuminate a tiny reception area where a heavyset matriarch keeps watch like a bloated bird of prey. Her sour disdain, worn like scarring, lifts into a smile of lascivious and ingratiating welcome the moment a knock sounds at the front door. Megan steps clear of the brothel’s mistress, not wanting to repeat the sensation of flesh passing through the pure glow of her weave body. As a group of three traders stumble in, Megan lets the draw pull her through a curtain of red ribbons, along a slim corridor with closed doors to her right and up a flight of uneven steps that she knows would creak loudly had she a more substantial form.

On the next level, the rooms run to her left but the pull still comes from above. Noises emanate from most of the rooms; giggles, squeals, and grunts mostly but sometimes sounds of choking and sobbing. Megan concentrates on the draw from overhead but she can’t shut out the animalistic voices, nor can she imagine what they signify: something more complex than the rutting of beasts.

Only in Gordon’s world has she seen stairs rising more than two levels but here they take her to a third and still the steps in the sandwich house lead up. The fourth flight ends at a door with a red rose painted on it and this is where the pull emanates from. Megan ascends and listens. She hears nothing but she can sense life on the other side. She passes through the door.

Within, the roof of the sandwich house forms the tightly cocked ceiling of the room, the joists and rafters in plain view. A small wind-eye gives onto the market place, quite the vantage point for an observer. The bed, large by Megan’s reckoning, looks as though a fight has taken place in it. The room smells thick with the mingled scents of men and women. Well, one woman. The one who now sits remaking her face at a tiny dressing table in a mirror little bigger than her own face. It is in this mirror that her eyes glance at some movement in her periphery and then lock with Megan’s. Her free hand flies to her mouth but the cry it was intended to stifle is already out. The woman turns on her stool.

 

BOOK: The Book of the Crowman
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