Expeditions to Elsewhere
Old Ned trudged across the moonlit field, drawing his cloak tightly around him to stave off the cold air. Although winter was now some weeks past, the cloudless nights still brought a chill that left a light, twinkling frost on the fields and pastures each dawn.
It was time to return to the cottage, but he continued onwards. 'Just a few more minutes', he told himself, choosing to forget that he'd made himself the same promise an hour earlier.
'Damn the boy,' Ned cursed, 'damn him and damn the mist!'
Stumbling as his foot connected with a large stone, Ned fought to maintain his balance. He was too old for this. Rearing sheep had kept him nimble, but chest rot was a real concern for a man of his years.
Some fifty or so feet to his left, a low stone wall marked the boundary between Mysthaven and Elsewhere. Another fifty or so feet beyond that, the mist.
Nobody in the town knew how it came to be, or how long it had been there, but there it was – its wispy tendrils grasping, ready to ensnare the unwary.
If the boy had wandered into the mist…
Ned shuddered. It didn't bear thinking about.
The moon overhead cast just enough light that Ned could make out the silhouette of Mysthaven in the distance. The town would be quiet at this hour, the inns and taverns having turned out their last remaining patrons an hour ago. Perhaps a backstreet brothel or two remained open – offering lonely men the comforting pleasure of an ample bosom in exchange for a few coin.
Ned had not enjoyed the warm embrace of a woman for more than a decade; not since his wife Meril had passed. She had departed well before her time; before they could start a family.
After Meril's accident, there had been a beautiful service. Mysthaven was a small town and nearly a hundred people had gathered in the Abbey of the Known to pay their respects and say their goodbyes.
There were no such farewells for those lost to the mist. Only hushed prayers muttered by the mysterious Priests of the Unknown in their grotesque monastery.
Some four years ago, now alone, and knowing that he wouldn't be able to tend his flock forever, Ned had adopted the boy. His name was Abel and he seemed strong and capable at fourteen years of age; if somewhat sullen and broody at times. That suited Ned, as he had grown accustomed to keeping to his own company.
Abel's parents had both died from Silverscale when he was a bairn. With no other family, he had been taken in by the Mysthaven Orphanage, under the care of its strict matron. Most children who ended up there did not leave until their coming of age.
The boy had quickly grasped the basics of sheep rearing. He was a natural when it came to sheering, and knew how to look for and treat the early signs of disease and infection. Now eighteen, he was strong and hardworking and could look after the herd without supervision. Ned wasn't the sentimental sort, but he felt a brief stab of pride.
Abel was the closest thing to family that Ned had. That is, until four days ago when the boy left the cottage to take milk to a sickly ewe, and hadn't returned.
Ned had walked the fields for the best part of the past three days, but he'd found no trace of the boy. Lambing season was now upon him and the herd would require constant attention. This was his last chance to seek answers.
Glancing skyward, Ned noticed that the moon was beginning to sink in the sky. It was time to turn around; he'd be lucky if he made it back to his cottage by dawn. Feeling suddenly weary, he perched for a moment on a short stump. For the first time that night he turned and gazed out beyond the boundary. Momentarily, Ned closed his eyes.
This wouldn't do, he thought. He needed to get back. Ned opened his eyes and rubbed them. Strange, the mist didn't seem as dense tonight and, if he didn't know better, he'd hazard he could see further into it than usual. Tiredness could play tricks on the mind. Ned rubbed his eyes again and stood up. No, he thought, he wasn't imagining it; the mist was definitely thinner than usual. Taking momentary leave of his senses, Ned walked forward, stepping over the low stone boundary wall and continuing forward tentatively.
Sirrus' eyes flicked open; he blinked, expecting them to take a moment to adjust to the sunlight, but the room was still dark.
There it was again, the noise that had woken him; a muffled thumping from below. Was somebody banging on his door at this ungodly hour?
Sirrus was no stranger to being woken in the night. As Mynister of Varyous Thyngs, the residents of Mysthaven came to him for solutions to their more bizarre problems. Only last week he had been roused from his slumber to deal with a swarm of rats that had taken residence in the cellar of The Opulent Badger; gnawing an unfortunate young barmaid to death when she went down to tap a fresh keg. Grisly business.
But, the role had its perks too. Sirrus looked forward to officiating over the annual Midsummer Cheese Festival, where townsfolk came together to celebrate the glorious yellow foodstuff.
Trudging to the window and pulling open the shutters a fraction, Sirrus peered into the street below. It was calm and still, bathed in moonlight. No rats to be seen, but his relief was short-lived as the knocking resumed. Nobody delivers good news in the dead of night.
'Curse the unknown!' he uttered, fumbling to light a lantern and pull on a robe.
More knocking as Sirrus descended the creaking wooden stairs, lantern in hand. Four taps this time, more frantic than before.
Reaching the end of the hallway, Sirrus paused briefly, took a deep breath, then lifted the latch on the front door and pulled it open.
A short, cloaked figure stood, stooped, on the porch before him. Sirrus vaguely recognised the face but struggled to recall the man's name. Was it Ted? Nod? Neb… something like that. He was one of the herdsmen who lived outside town and kept himself to himself. Sirrus wondered what crisis had brought him into town.
Whatever his name, the man on Sirrus' porch looked deranged; visibly shaking and wide-eyed. Sirrus instinctively reached for his wand, then remembered he'd left it on his nightstand.
Before Sirrus could say anything, the man spoke. In a voice tinged with fear and shock Ned uttered four words that would change the fate of Mysthaven forever.
'The Mist… is gone'
Image: Mist in the trees on May Hill – © Copyright Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.