Excerpt from Steer a Pale Course

Excerpt from Steer a Pale Course by Gail Z. Martin

First published in the Rum & Runestones anthology from DragonMoon Press


They didn’t send someone with us to the barrows.  They didn’t have to.  We knew what would happen if we didn’t come back with the necklace.  The look in my mother’s eyes bound me more to see it through than my word to Jammer.  I didn’t doubt Jammer would kill them if we failed or ran off.

“We could light a big fire and warn the men.”  Coltt had obviously been giving some thought to our options.

“One of us could run for the next village,”  Nesh offered.

I shook my head.  “If we light a fire, Jammer will see it.  We’d have to get the whole way to the other side of the cliffs to hide it, and if we do that, the men won’t know it’s for them.  And it’s a day’s walk to the next village.  Jammer said to be back by dawn.  Even if one of us got there, he couldn’t get back in time with a mob.”  I’d thought of the same things on the hike to the barrows.  From the looks on their faces, Coltt and Nesh had reasoned through it, too.  We had no choice but to go on.

For autumn, it was a hot day.  We were all sweating by the time we reached the barrows.  I stopped and took a deep breath.  The barrows were about a candlemark’s hard hike directly inland from the village.  There were three of them, and they might have been mistaken for hills if the rest of the land weren’t so flat.  I’d heard about the barrows since I was a kid.  The old women warned children that the barrow wights ate children who wandered away from the village.  At first, I thought it was just a tale to keep the children from running off.  Then I noticed that even the hunters made a wide circle around the barrows.  I’d gone out once with my father to look for deer and I’d asked why we couldn’t just climb the “hills” for a better view.  He’d gone gray in the face and told me they were an evil place and to stay clear.

Now we were going into them.

Jammer let us take equipment to unseal the barrows.  Coltt and I had picks and Nesh carried two shovels.  The pirates seemed pretty confident we couldn’t use them for weapons.  Hell, they hadn’t even cared about taking our knives.  After all, they had muskets.  I had the awful feeling that whatever was in those barrows wouldn’t be scared of either knives or muskets.  Nesh also had a bag of reeds and a flint and steel for torches.  Jammer had thrown us some dried meat and cheese with a laugh that told me our meals were numbered.

“Can you feel it?”

“Feel what?”  Coltt asked.  Then he closed his eyes for a moment, and so did Nesh.  I could see the change in their expression.  My magic felt jangly, like warning bells in my mind.  It was the same feeling I got when there was a bad storm coming at sea, long before we saw the waves.  That jangle had saved us many a time out on the ocean, warning us to head home before the squall hit.  Only now, we couldn’t head home.  We were heading straight into the storm.

Then I heard it.  It was faint, like a voice calling from a distance.  I pictured the necklace Jammer had drawn with a stick in the dirt floor of the lodge,   The more clearly I pictured it, the louder the voice called to me, directing me to its barrow.  I didn’t like the voice, but I’d heard it before.  I’d heard it in my dreams, bad dreams where a voice tried to call me out into the night, or onto the dark water.  It was the kind of voice you knew in your bones only wanted you for your meat.  I shuddered.

“Let’s do this.”

Coltt and I set to with the picks, while Nesh cleared away the rock from the entranceway.  We took turns with the shovel.  It was hard work, and it wasn’t until the sun was overhead that we broke through.  Whoever had blocked that entrance wanted it to stay blocked.  I wondered again what was down there, but I really didn’t want to know.  I was afraid I’d find out anyhow.

Cold air rushed toward us when Coltt’s pick broke through.  It should have felt good in the autumn heat, but it smelled like dead things.  I saw fear in their eyes as I lit my torch, and I was pretty sure they saw the same in mine.  We picked up our picks and shovels and headed in.  Maybe we’d need them to dig out another blocked area.  Or maybe it just felt good to have something heavy to swing at whatever lived in the darkness.  I went first.

“How do we know where the damned necklace is?”  Coltt whispered.  Everyone down here was supposed to be dead, but I knew why he was whispering.  It felt like we were being watched.

“It’s calling.  Can you hear it?”  I could make out their faces by torchlight enough to see that they didn’t hear the voice.  Damn.  I didn’t like that it was only calling to me, not one little bit.

I ignored the voice in my head that was screaming common sense and followed the other voice, the hungry one.  Inside the barrows, there were tunnels leading in every direction.  There were carvings in the walls, too, and just at the edge of the torchlight, I saw statues and slabs that might have been coffins.  I didn’t look too hard.  I was afraid something might be looking back.  Whatever else was down here, it could stay.  All we wanted was the necklace, and from the way it called me, I’d have said it wanted us to take it.

“No rats.  No spiders.”  Nesh whispered, and I wasn’t sure it was to himself or to the rest of us.  But I knew what he meant.  We’d gone caving in the cliffs by the sea all our lives.  Part of the fun was discovering gross stuff, like bat poop and creepy crawlies.  But not here.  Things might exist here, but nothing lived.  I was now sure of that. We saw nothing.

I don’t know how long we walked.  Without the sun, time meant nothing.  The voice guided us, showing me which of the turns to take, which tunnel to follow.  It kept getting louder and I followed it, even though inside, I wanted to run.  Running seemed like a sane idea.  Nesh carefully marked each turn by chipping an arrow into the wall.  Just in case the necklace lured us in and didn’t want us to get out.  It occurred to me that maybe the necklace and Jammer had different agendas.  Why Jammer wanted the necklace I didn’t know.  Why the necklace wanted to be found, I wasn’t sure, but the suspicions I had weren’t good.  I was glad Nesh marked the trail.

“There it is.”

“Are you sure?”  Coltt didn’t move closer, but he leaned forward, peering through the shadows.  The necklace lay beside a small box next to what was probably once a body.  It was wrapped in a shroud but both the bones and the cloth were brittle with age.  The necklace wasn’t around the corpse’s neck.  It was clasped in its bony hand.  I got a glimpse of gold and white, but I didn’t have time to look closely.

“I’m sure.”  My sanity fought every step I took toward the necklace.  My will made me keep moving.  The necklace was screaming at me, screaming to pick it up.  Something in me was very sure there was a good reason the necklace had been sealed in here.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to remove it.  Then, when I got closer, the screaming was so loud I couldn’t think at all.  I just wanted to shut the damned voice up and I tore it out of the skeleton’s hand.  I didn’t care if every barrow wight in the place came after us, I just wanted that voice to shut the hell up.

I held the necklace in my hand and there was silence.  Beautiful silence.  On instinct, I grabbed the box that was next to the necklace.  Damn, it was heavy, like it was made from lead.  Something told me to take it, too, that voice of common sense I’d ignored since we headed into the cave.  The necklace didn’t like it, but this time, I ignored the necklace. I took the box.

Suddenly, images flooded into my mind, pictures that were so crisp and clear it was as if someone had opened a window in front of me, although we were deep in the cave.  Sunlight. Ocean.  A path through the forest.  The urge to run back along the tunnels for the open air was so strong I was shaking with the effort to fight it.  “We’ve got to go,” I said, the strain clear in my voice.  “Now.”

Whether they guessed that the necklace was pushing me or whether they just wanted out, I don’t know, but Coltt and Nesh found the energy to walk back a lot faster than we walked in.  I didn’t trust the necklace.  I checked at every turn, but each time, I saw Nesh’s marks.  I couldn’t get out fast enough.  Holding the necklace seemed to open up a whole new level of senses for me, something I’d never felt before in the magic.  I could feel things moving in the distance, things that were cold and long dead.  Some were angry, and for some, the hatred was so intense I cringed.  Some were hungry.  There were a lot of them, and I didn’t want to meet them.  I couldn’t tell whether they liked me taking the necklace or not.  I didn’t want to find out.  Without saying a word, we ran.