Gathering Clouds

     It was a warm night, notwithstanding the cloud cover.  The moon shone dimly onto Lorcan’s face as he looked up, wishing the clouds would disperse.  He didn’t like how he was unable to see the ground below him, and he needed to be prepared, now more than ever.  He leaned up against the parapet and sighed.  He was tired, anxious, and really quite bored.  He hoped the merchants had been mistaken, and that northern raiders really hadn’t been spotted coming inland.  He heard footsteps aprroaching him from behind, so he turned to face William, who smiled wearily at him.

     “Has anyone killed us yet?” asked William, tired eyes looking up at him.  He clearly hadn’t been sleeping well; none of them had been.  Lorcan and his friends had been up every night this week, patrolling the monastery walls and staying as alert as they could, should the Vikings come.  They each walked the halls and outer walls of the fortress, ready to raise the alarm at a moment’s notice, but nobody had yet come.  And furthermore, none of them were soldiers.  They were priests.  They weren’t used to this kind of lifestyle, and their activities were wearing on them.

     “Not yet,” Lorcan smiled.  “If I do get killed though, I’ll let you know first.”

     William nodded.  “Fair enough.  How much longer do you think we’ll have to wait until we’re safe?”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Because don’t get me wrong, I love not being able to sleep in a warm bed, it’s just… I think Dominguez is getting tired or something, that’s all.”

     The Spaniard, who had been bobbing his head up and down nearby, trying to stay awake, suddenly straightened, and turned to look at them.  “Eh?  You be careful what you do with that tongue of yours, lest I decide to remove it and take it as a trophy.”

     William looked mock-affronted.  “Brother Dominguez!  We are men of peace!  I expected better of you!”

     Dominguez muttered some very un-men-of-peace-like things under his breath, and William and Lorcan grinned.  Despite the circumstances, Lorcan felt comforted that his friends were with him.  As long as he had them, he was happy.

     “Oh, are we all meeting up over here now?” came a voice from the direction of the stairs behind William.  The group turned to see Dorian and Baylor climbing the stairs toward them.  “If I’d known we were going to have a meeting,” said Dorian, “I would have brought Lexaeus too.”

     Lorcan raised an eyebrow.  “You realize that we’re trying NOT to be noticed, right?  Besides, what would we do if the raiders did come?  Lexaeus would just try to fight them all himself.  Or, that’s what he’d tell everyone at least.  We want the glory for ourselves, you understand.”

     Baylor nodded.  “True, but I’m sure the stories would be entertaining nonetheless, if not, well, a little more colorful than the real thing.”

     They all chuckled a little, when Dominguez suddenly stiffened, staring below at the front of the monastery.  “Hey,” he whispered, “I think I see something.”

     The group went quiet and serious.  Something stirred in the back of Lorcan’s mind.  It was a dark, dreading feeling.  He had seen this before.  William edged over to Dominguez, and looked over the edge of the building with him.  “See?” said Dominguez.  “Just there, something moving…”

     Suddenly, Lorcan realized what was happening.  Not again…please, not again… “Wait!  Get back now!” he cried, rushing toward his friends, but it was too late.  Two arrows, almost too fast to see, whistled from below, rising up to strike William and Dominguez in their chests.  They slumped over where they stood, falling to rest awkwardly on the ground next to each other.

     Lorcan’s cry of grief was suddenly drowned in a whirl of sounds and colors that enveloped him, whisking away the image of the worst day of his life.  The world around him twisted and turned, contorting itself into countless senseless shapes.  He was asleep, and he was seeing his nightmares again.  But this time, it was more real than ever before.  “You’re dreaming,” moaned Lorcan, falling to his knees in the midst of the whirlpool of sound and color.  “You’re dreaming.  It’ll all go away soon.  Make it stop…make it stop…”

     The chaos ended abruptly, and Lorcan found himself kneeling on an earthen floor.  He was in the woods, the air thick and musty, filled with the feeling of decay.  Tall trees loomed above him, blocking out all light, save for sparse beams of moonlight reaching through the branches.  There was an odd feel to the air, as if something were dying…as if the whole earth was releasing its death rattle.  There was no smell, exactly, but the air felt…diseased, wrong.  Out of nowhere, Lorcan felt a searing pain behind his eyes, and visions began to flash before him.  The woman in red, standing in a battlefield, walking barefoot among the slain.  A man shaped creature made of shadow with glowing red eyes, chained to a rock.  A tall monster, wearing a blood-red cloak and hood, antlers sprouting from a skull mask, everything part beast, part tree, part bone.  The monster looked at him through the mask, it’s face bearing an indescribable expression of malice and rage.  Then, as soon as the visions had come, they left, leaving Lorcan gasping.

     He knelt on the earth, wheezing in pain, and rubbing his eyes furiously.  After a minute, the pain subsided, and he stood, looking around him.  The forest showed no indication of a road, or indeed any sign of life or civilization. Before he could decide where to walk however, the ground trembled.  The earth beneath him quaked, causing him to lose his footing.  He fell forward, landing hard on his hands, causing his wrist to sprain.  Lorcan tried to shift his weight to get into a seated position, but the earthquake just tossed him around.  Then, an enormous earth-shattering roar filled the air, causing a powerful wind to soar through the trees, uprooting many and flinging them to the sides, opening up a view of the sky.  A colossal shape rose high over the tops of the trees, blocking out all light in the sky.  A dragon, bigger than any castle, loomed over the forest, a dark aura enveloping it, radiating fear and disgust that made Lorcan feel that he needed to vomit.  The monster looked down at Lorcan, massive golden eyes gleaming with hatred, and roared that awful roar again, making Lorcan’s head reverberate, and drowning out his cry of pain.

     Lorcan bolted upright in bed, crying out.  It took him several moments to pull himself together and realize he was awake.  But, if would be several minutes before his heart stopped racing and the cold sweat faded.  He sat in bed, leaning against his headboard, wiping some stray tears from his face, trying to regain his composure.  These dreams couldn’t just be dreams; they were too real, and they kept happening every time he closed his eyes.  Anywhere else, dreams like this could be due to illness, madness, or just odd happenstance.  In Woodland however, it was infinitely more ominous.  With every passing day, Lorcan gained a little more certainty of what he had to do, and he dreaded it.  He couldn’t go back, he had sworn to himself he would never go back…

     As he sat, brooding, trying to forget what he’d just seen, there came a distinct tapping noise at Lorcan’s window.  He straightened up, rubbed his eyes, and walked to the side of the room.  He pushed aside the small curtain covering the window, and looked out.  There was a large raven standing on the ledge outside, staring fixedly at him.  It cawed loudly.  Lorcan couldn’t hear very well through the glass, but it sounded like the bird was saying, “Open up!  I’m cold!”

     Lorcan paused, scrutinizing the raven.  Hearing birds speak to him in English didn’t surprise him anymore, but he was in no mood to let any old bird into his house, cold and hungry though it may be.  He had quite enough pests to deal with already.  Another muffled caw came through the window, “Lorcan MacBroin, you open you window!  I’ll bring Valkyries next time if you don’t!”

     Lorcan remained deadpan.  “Promise?”  The bird glared at him, so he sighed and unlatched the window.  “Fine.”  He pushed open the window, and the raven fluttered inside, landing on a table, and shook itself violently.  Lorcan shut the window, latched it again, and turned to face his guest.  “What do you want Munin?”

     Munin kept flapping his wings, as if getting feeling back into them.  “Oh!  That’s MUCH better!  The winter down here is miserable, MISERABLE I tell you.  We’d never have winters like this in the North, I promise you that! Well, maybe in Greenland, but-”  He paused, looking down at the floor, cocking his head to the side in confusion.  “Why is your floor all green?”

     Lorcan sighed again.  “I incurred the wrath of a baker.  Now, Munin, it’s not that I’m not absolutely delighted to see you, but the last time we met, I had just nearly been eaten by a dragon, and I’m not in a good mood this morning.  What do you want?”

     The raven took his turn to sigh.  “Mortals.  All business, no hospitality.  This is why I never come to England; nobody understands Guest’s Rights.  Why even in Jotunheim, they at least-” Lorcan was reaching for something to throw at him, so he changed tactics.  “But hey!  Who cares about hospitality these days?  I mean, we have more pressing concerns, like the plague, holy wars, and um…gout.  Though, I wouldn’t mind a little morsel to help me on my way… Anyway, I’m here with a message from the Allfather.”

     Lorcan braced himself.  A message from a god was nothing to take lightly.  He was hoping Odin wouldn’t ask him to pluck his eye out, or perhaps hang himself on a tree to learn some kind of magic.  He’d had quite enough of magical prices, and deals with Norse deities.  He made a pained face.

     “Oh, don’t be like that!” scolded Munin.  “I bring glad tidings…mostly.”  He straightened himself and puffed out his chest.  “First, the Allfather congratulates you for your recent victories over the dragon, Mimir, and the demon Haute.  You’ve made your ancestors proud.  Second, you are, due to your birthright, allowed to keep and use the Yggdrasil ring, which can take you anywhere within the Nine realms, should you know the passphrase, and who to ask for passage.  You can learn all that by meditating, I think.”  Munin began preening his wing, and plucked off a feather, offering it to Lorcan.  “I’ve also been instructed to give you this, the memory of a young sorcerer.  It contains the knowledge of some basic spell-work.  This will help you get started on practicing greater magic.  Trust me, you’ll need it in the days ahead.”

     Lorcan took the feather, holding it gingerly, as if it might bite him.  He had received something like this before, so he had no doubt it was what Munin said.  Where the Norse pantheon was involved however, there was always some manner of price in fine print.  He looked inquisitively at Munin, who was smiling contentedly up at him (after one learns to speak to birds, you start recognizing their facial expression).  “So, what?   Is this just given in good will, or does Odin expect me to maim myself or something? Are you here to collect my fingers as payment?”

     Munin sighed again.  “It’s nice to see that you hold Asgardians in such high regard.  No, there’s no price this time.  But, the Allfather encourages you to practice magic in the days ahead.  Seriously, you’ll need it.”  He paused, furrowing his brow, as if trying to remember something.  “Now, what else was I supposed to say?  Funny, I’m literally the incarnation of memory, and I can’t remember things… oh!  Right!  Go visit your brother!”

     Lorcan pulled back a little.  “What?  Lucan?  What’s going on with him?”

     The bird shifted uncomfortably.  “Well, as of now, nothing is exactly wrong, per se, just… you haven’t seen him in a few years, and you’d probably like to see him-er, he’d like to see you before…well he’d just like to see you, that all.”

     Lorcan studied the bird.  “All right,” he said tentatively.  “I’ll go see my brother.  I suppose it has been a few years.  I hope he’s alright.”  He walked over to his dresser, and opened a small drawer where he kept a small stash of food.  He pulled out some deer jerky, and offered it to Munin.  “here, for your troubles.  Now get out of here.”

     Munin enthusiastically snatched the jerky away.  “Thanks Lorcan!  You humans aren’t so bad!  I’ve always said so!”  He glided over to the windowsill, where Lorcan opened the window for him.  He turned back for a moment, and suddenly looked solemnly at Lorcan.  “And, um…sorry for your loss.”  With that, he took off into the gray sky.

     Lorcan stood, watching the clouds, and looking out at the trees.  He liked winter, but it always filled him with melancholy when it came around.  It always felt bittersweet to him, for reasons he never understood.  It made the chapel feel darker and lonely, but for some reason, he kind of liked it.  It was odd, liking the happy-sad feelings of winter, but that’s how it was.  But now, a pit of dread settled in his stomach, leaving a bitter feeling that edged in on the serenity he had been feeling.  he followed the speck that was Munin as he grew smaller and smaller in the sky, and he pondered over all the raven had told him.  “What loss?”