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Monday 7 February 2022


Estimated read time: 9 minutes

      The binding stone loomed atop the barrow hill. The ghostly breath of fog drifted and curled around it, lit by a moon bleached silent, riding the low, cold hum that had come to infect every night in the ancient glade. So too did shadows stand and flicker in the fog as though time stopped and started, figures of jagged, hulking forms with emaciated waists and huge, circular eyes that glowed and flickered out of time. These shapes rarely strayed from the binding stone. They watched, and guarded. Nothing more.
     Weather had worn down neither carving nor duty. Time hadn't vandalised the stone. And the dead below stirred no longer.

     "I've put this off for long enough."

     The young man approached through the trees, leaving behind the vibrant land where the green lay rich and full beneath the darkness, and on to where it and the night melded together like lovers. The village lay far behind him, but even here he could hear the drums of the festival just beginning, despite the moon's warnings.
     But, as the trees opened up into that foggy, shadow-haunted glade, suddenly nothing but Night could be heard: silence woven with a streak of the Unknown's breath.
     And then, as visibility dropped, the featherlight footsteps of shadows.
     The three hulking shades lurched towards him, slow and menacing, growing larger and larger until they stood taller even than the tangled yew trees, though their steps were eerily quiet.
     But the young man didn't flinch. He walked on despite them, passing between without pause or glance, and continued on towards the barrow hill in silence.
     This, the shades wouldn't allow. They turned and followed with low, creaking groans, and a sharp rush of air chased a swipe across his back. But it didn't touch, and he didn't turn.
     He continued on, muttering an incantation beneath his breath, but it did little to dissuade them. Again they swiped, and again they missed. But the creatures wouldn't stop.
     He heard the strain and felt the buckle in the earth as a tree was uprooted, and the frantic rustle of the leaves as it was thrown towards him. Quickly, his fingers pressed to his forehead.
     The tree bounced backwards. And the shield shattered under the impact.
     He lowered his hand from the spellstone in his brow, stopped in his quest and turned at last towards them. Their eyes, he discovered in that passive look, were different now, tinted with a sickly yellow ire.
     His other hand rose to his forehead as each of the shadows threw flickering black claws towards him, and another incantation breathed through his lips. Upon the final word, the shades dissolved where they hunched, eerie howls juddering from their cores. But for all their absence, their presence remained.
     He turned and walked on anyway.
     Another gust swept by behind him, then another, and another, but their effort was unrewarded. Their claws could never reach him. He wasn't strong enough to banish them away, not without overruling the binding stone first. They were, after all, its guardians - but there was little they could do whilst doused. This, at least, he could manage.
     But he would need much more.
     The young man moved on towards the barrow, dogged by the helpless creatures who howled in silence against their impotence. But the defence did not fall with them. Something else lay in wait, a single, stronger thing, sitting upon the barrow on a throne of pure darkness. This one, the young man knew as he eyed it with a veiled gaze, was powerful.
     But he had known what awaited him, and was prepared.
     Again he touched the spellstone and uttered another invocation, dutifully pacing through the ancient words until they began to muddle and melt on his tongue. Lethargy fell over him far sooner than he'd expected, and he dropped to one knee before that throne, even as fire flared at last to his will. But its glow was weak; it didn't reach far enough.
     The shade rose from its seat while the darkness reshaped into a cloak at his back, and drifted slowly, heavily, towards him. The young man half-watched with bleary eyes, but he was struck before he could activate the shield. It was too fast, much too fast - unless it was an inconceivably ancient one of its order.
     He was no match at all.
     Blood speckled his lip as he hit the sharp, rock-studded ground. The impact rang in his ears and spun behind his eyes, but he steeled his will and rose again. The pain chased the lethargy away, and his spell moved justly.
     Fire erupted between them, more powerfully than the last, and blinded the shade. A shriek ripped free in a backward voice, and it recoiled in its smoke, red skin flickering, the being's indefinite shape breaking where the light was at its brightest. But he had no chance to force the flame into contact for the final strike. Even in shock, it was too fast, and it had nothing corporeal to hit until it itself attacked - at which point, it would be too late. His only hope was a counter-curse.
     The fire sputtered and died all too soon, and the lethargy closed its grasp around his mind once again. His knees sagged to the ground while the being began to circle him, drawing a cold, wretched air around with it. But the young man still had bearings enough. He turned his back to the shade and staggered around with him in the opposite direction, brushing a line over the grass with his fingertip as he went.
     He'd made it barely over half way when a rush of dark, freezing smoke swiped his hand aside. But the shade didn't rasp in victory. In that moment, the man had closed his fist and caught a wisp of that smoke, and with the last of his strength, he snapped the nail from the string about his neck and drove it down through the darkness and into the ground.
     A shriek like the sky itself breaking pierced through his ears and stole his hearing away.
     The ancient shade rushed forwards in the new silence, reaching a gnarled black claw towards him, but the young man didn't recoil. Its claw turned white as it passed over the nail, and that purity spread throughout the darkness until the smoke itself became solid and the shade a jagged figure of pearl.
     The lethargy passed in a heartbeat. The shade had been defeated.
     With a gasp of relief, the man struggled back up from his knees, stumbling on to the top of the barrow while blood trickled from his ears, and the pearl shattered and crumbled to dust behind him.

     Darkness reigned. Clouds moved fast in the distance. Trees waved, and a light wind blew over him, tugging silk and chain. But nothing at all passed his ears. The world was mute, and would, he suspected, remain so forever.
     He didn't wallow. The bloodied young man, his silk robes torn, turned around atop that barrow hill and looked back over the tree tops towards the distant village. The glow of lanterns limned the corners and edges of the rooves, purple lights afloat in celebration.
     His thin lips hardened, and he brushed his loose golden hair back from his face in resolution. The celebration wouldn't be wasted this time.
     A deep breath flooded his lungs, his head tipped back, his eyes closed, and he sank again to the ground. With feeling alone, he opened his satchel and withdrew the knife, the string, the bottle, the flowers, and all else. Then, with a prayer to the moon and a brushing touch to the spellstone, he began.
     "The Second Circle rings anew," the words murmured beneath his breath while he took up the handclamp and relinked and closed the broken chain, bent and beaten, and lay it upon the ground in a circle.
     "Once vices shed," then he poured wine and scattered tobacco, poppyseeds and gold around the circle.
     "And duties bled," he scattered nails and petals beyond.
     "And vessels cast aside." The empty wine bottle smashed on the rocks behind him.
     "Outgrew did we our hate," he cut a length of straw.
     "Our fear," a length of thread.
     "Our fate," a length of chain.
     "And strive no more to bitter' rue," the blade turned to his wrist, "once tethers cut by fate." His blood was warm as it flowed over his skin and stained his misty sleeves. Then he made himself comfortable on the grass, and exhaled deeply. "Wander... Wander... Wander..."
     He saw the glow of the binding stone through closed eyes. He felt the presence of the hulking shadows shatter. And he felt the pressure upon the barrow diminish. Spirits were not meant to be bound like this. Death is the Untethering; the time to fulfill all of life's lost curiosities, to see and learn and discover what they couldn't in life.
     For most.
     The young man breathed his last; his spirit vacated its shell and entered instead the cursed heathen binding stone, disintegrating its wretched, hateful hold on the dead at last.
     With a beautiful, bright hum, the spirits of the barrow rose again from their prison and drifted on through the wind, glowing among the scattered pearl dust.

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Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock