Mist upon the Marsh: The Story of Nessa and Cassie

BOOK: Mist upon the Marsh: The Story of Nessa and Cassie
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Mist u
pon the Marsh: The Story of Nessa and Cassie

 

 

By Mae Ronan

For what shall it profit a man,

if he should gain the whole world,

and lose his own soul?

– Mark 8:36

 

Yet man is born unto trouble,

as the sparks fly upward.

– Job 5:7

Part the First

 

Episode I

 

Chapter I:

Dog’s Hill

 

F
or many years, the state of Louisiana harboured a rather enormous secret. Or perhaps one might say, the
land
on which the state of Louisiana is built – for, surely, this secret existed long before that state was founded. It was something of an amazing state of affairs, when one takes the time to think of it; that, in this instance, there was such a strange and unusual thing just beneath the surface; and up above it, there existed normal days and events, occurrences and conversations.

But below – below! It is there we focus, and it is there that our story takes place. Now, to begin with, we shall offer a description of the centre of impending activities. This place was quite ordinary, of course, at first glance (as all unordinary things indeed must be, in order to survive in an unchanging and unaccepting world). And yet, if one were to look only a little deeper, through the initial exterior which was surrendered to chance visitors and passers-by, one would see something truly grand – and something, quite surely, that one never saw before.

In rural land South of Baton Rouge, near to the banks of a tributary of the great Mississippi River, there stood the immense and elegant house of what was once a vast plantation – the plot of land being still equally vast, but plantation no more. This house was truly beautiful, and truly splendid; and perhaps a little more of both, than any other house for miles about. It stood with its face pointing towards Old Johnson Road, at perhaps a distance of five miles from the road itself. There was no additional road, street or lane which ran to connect with that main thoroughfare, so that the inhabitants of the old farmhouse might venture more easily into more populated areas. There was nothing but a wide and open place of field and meadow, filled with tall grass that swayed in the summer breeze. It did not look as if the occupants of the house dedicated much of their time to the maintenance of their own grounds, or to the keeping of the wild gardens that grew all around.

The house stood with its back pressed to the side of a large hill, which was called Dog’s Hill. The occupants of the house were occasionally asked, whether they were not afraid to live under such a tall hill, made of what looked to be no more than crumbling earth? Were they not afraid that the hill should collapse, tumble down, and bury the house in an impenetrable layer of mud and rock? For surely, what with the distance from the road, no soul would bear witness to their demise; and they would doubtless die of starvation or suffocation.

But no – no, they said, they were not afraid. For, you see, this hill was actually rather important to them; and without it, their house should most always have been in a terrible state of chaos and disrepair.

Let us explain. You see, in the rear wall of the house, there was a great wide doorway that opened up into the hill. There were many tunnels, and many rooms, dug into the interior of the hill, so that the greater part of it was hollow. These tunnels wound up and down, and left and right; and there were two exits from the hill, on the East- and
West-hands. These exits were only earthen doors, which swung as if on hinges, but which fitted their muddy jambs in a state of perfect camouflage.

On occasion, the occupants of the house made use of these rooms and tunnels. On occasion (or perhaps more frequently than that), they abandoned the comfort of their beautiful and splendid house, and absconded into the cool darkness of the hill.

And why did they do this? Well, you shall see. You shall see.

 

~

 

The night was pitch dark. Some hours before, there had shone the small light of a sliver of crescent moon; but the clouds had masked it with murk, and presently, the blackness was absolute.

Yet the runners needed no light. Their eyes could see well enough in its absence, and their sense of smell was sufficient to warn them of what moved in the shadows ahead. They darted this way and that through the trees, searching for a sign of their prey; but there were none left to be found.

The length of the chase was indeterminate, but was nonetheless quite enough to make requisite a short pause for water at a running stream. The runners drank their fill; and even before they had finished refreshing themselves, detected a familiar scent on the bank where they stood, and looked down to see blades of grass which had been broken by bodies of great weight. In less than an instant, they had bounded across the stream, and were racing Westward.

Yet they could not trace the scent. They ran for what could only have been hours more; and when finally they halted, weary and sweating at the edge of the forest, they collapsed to the ground for a brief sleep.

When they woke, they rose lazily to their feet, and changed their course Southward. The early morning was warm, almost humid even. The runners were far from home. They had wandered, they judged, no less than twenty miles. And so they yawned, and rubbed their eyes; but then bowed their heads, and took to a brisk pace.

When they reached the Southern boundary of the forest, they came into sight of the top of Dog’s Hill. They covered quickly the small space which lay between themselves and the hill, in the form of a green and open field.

With a glance down at their muddied feet, they knew to forgo any entrance into the house itself, and rather to pass in through the East door of the hill. Before entering, however, they made a wary glance about. After assuring themselves that none moved nearby, they made their silent way into the hill.

Spent from their travels, the runners each turned into their own small chambers within the hill, and laid themselves down upon their low beds. After a few hours of sleep, they rose almost in synchronisation, and went into the main corridor of the hill, which led towards the entrance of the house. Here they called for water, and for towels; both of which were brought to them presently, by the ever-mindful Ceir. She shook her head at the state of them, and then flung a bucket of water over each of their heads. This they towelled off, till they had gotten themselves into some semblance of a state of cleanliness.

“I suppose I shall never understand it,” said Ceir with a sigh. “I mean to say, do you simply
roll
in the mud?”

“We are ever clumsy, Mother,” said Caramon. “I am sure we should avoid it, if we could.”

Ceir only waved a hand, and ushered the runners out into the hall. “Go on, now,” she said. “Take your baths, and come down to supper.”

To the right turned the female runners, and to the left the male. As they parted, Caramon pressed Dechtire’s hand; and Orin, Nessa’s.

Ceir had lit the lamps on either side of the wide hall, and the place was filled with light. There the world was still, and quiet; but two storeys down, there could be heard a great many voices, all raised up in the drink of the evening.              

 

~

 

After dressing themselves neatly, the four runners went down to supper. The table in the dining room was nearly twenty-five feet long, and was filled quite to capacity. At one end sat Ceir; and at the other sat Dahro. Both Nessa and Caramon leant down to kiss the cheek of the latter.

“How did you fare, my darlings?” he asked.

“Not so well as we hoped, Father,” said Caramon. “I am sorry.”

“Do not apologise, my son,” said Dahro. “Nor you, my daughter!”

“Thank you, Father,” said Nessa, taking her place at the table at his left-hand side. Beside her sat Orin; and then Leyra, Ayo and Ara. Across from Ara, at Ceir’s left-hand, sat Caramon; and then Dechtire, Faevin, Ima and Baer.

To put aside any confusion, it should be noted here the order and relation of these persons. In such a house as this, it is customary for several families to live together. These families are grouped in accordance with the pairing of their children. For example: Dahro was wed to Ceir; and their children were Caramon and Nessa. Dechtire and Orin were the children of Baer and Ima; and Leyra was the daughter of Ayo and Ara. Faevin, whose mother and father were no longer a part of the earth, lived without blood ties, but was paired to Leyra. Caramon was paired to Dechtire, and Orin was paired to Nessa.

Four houses of similar size dwelt within a radius of some thirty miles or so from Dog’s Hill. Somewhere in the centre, there stood the great meeting-place, which was, of course, hidden from any and all sorts of prying eyes. In the meeting-place lived a large number of persons. When the members of the surrounding houses (in all of which, save for Dog’s Hill, dwelt sixteen heads) poured also into that structure, it became filled with the amount of two hundred persons.

After supper this night, Ceir, Ima, Ara and Leyra disappeared just as always into the kitchen, to complete whatever cleaning and additional baking was their wont. Dahro, Ayo, Baer and Faevin remained at table, to chat over snifters of brandy; but Nessa, Caramon, Dechtire and Orin escaped into the night. They rounded the house and hid themselves behind the hill, out of sight of the open fields ahead.

“First to catch a rabbit wins the night,” said Caramon.

Dechtire grimaced. “You only just finished eating, Caramon.”

“Do you refuse the game? If you do –”

“I know, I know! You win if I do.”

“And what about me?” asked Nessa. “I said nothing of forfeit.”

Caramon laughed. “As if you could beat me, sister! We shall see about that.”

Orin only shook his head with a sigh.

Had anyone been watching, at that moment, those four persons behind the hill, they would have seen something rather unbelievable. Surely, if anyone
had
seen (which none ever did, for these persons were very careful about such things) they would have given themselves over as delusional; or weary and bleary-eyed, at best. For, one moment, there stood beneath the scarce light of the sickle moon four perfectly normal persons: two male and two female. Next moment, there stood in the same light, in the very same spot, four wolves, perhaps a little larger than those of the usual breed: two black, one white, and one brown.

Then they began to run. They moved as the wind, from the fields to the trees, and started on the playing of their game.

Much to the disappointment of her brother, Nessa emerged as victor. Caramon snatched the rabbit from her jaws, and then pounced upon her, so that they both went tumbling to the ground.

When they had done with their play, they rose up, and went running again towards the Eastern boundary of the forest. With the sparse light that shone down between the breaks in the thick canopy of leaves, both Dechtire and Caramon moved as little more than shadows through the trees; and even Orin, with the occasional moonbeam fallen down to make his coat shine, was quite inconspicuous. But Nessa’s fur shone even more brightly than the silver of the moon, so that she appeared as a wolfen spectre, racing along through the wood.

The runners came finally to the Devil’s Crag, which rose up over two hundred feet into the air, and whose plateau stretched out some distance to hang above the Black River. This river was a wide and rushing tributary of the Mississippi, and flowed so very fiercely, its unapproachable nature was common knowledge. Many unfortunate souls had been lost to that river over the years.

Gaining the worn footpath, the runners wound their way to the top of the crag, and went to stand together over the loud crashing of the river. They rose their heads towards the sky, and offered the moon the greeting of their howls.

Chapter II:

Mindren

 

T
he day after the runners’ failed pursuit in the forest, the house at Dog’s Hill slept late into the afternoon, for its inhabitants were due at the meeting-place at moonrise. Dahro and the other sires rose first, to hold council at table in the dining room. Ceir and the elder women went next to join them; but the younger people slept longer, and indeed nearly into the twilight of the evening.

Nessa did not so much as stir, till there came a firm knock at the door of her quarters. Only then did her eyes finally open; and with a great sigh of discontent, she heaved herself out of bed.

Thinking that the knocker was Caramon, she had something of a smile ready for him; but it faded almost altogether, when she found that her caller instead was Orin.

“We are to leave now,” said he. “Are you ready?”

“I shall be,” said Nessa. “But leave me now, so I can dress.”

“Dress?” echoed Orin. “You know you need not. We are to run tonight!”

Nessa answered him nothing; but as she attempted to close the door against him, he curled his arm through the open space, and tried to catch her hand.

“I asked you to leave me,“ said Nessa in annoyance.

“So you did,” said Orin. “But might I have just a small kiss before I leave, perhaps upon the cheek?”

“No,” replied Nessa. She slapped his hand away, and succeeded this time in fitting the door to the jamb.

 

~

 

Some minutes later (which were filled not with any sort of preparation, but rather with a sort of inactivity that bespoke of her unwillingness to make the journey), when Nessa arrived at the doorway to the hill, she found all of the others waiting upon her.

“Did Orin not tell you to hurry along?” asked Dechtire.

“So he did,” said Nessa. “And so I did.”

Dechtire offered a rather dramatised rolling of her eyes, and then turned away to take the hand of Caramon. Yet Nessa went to her anyway, and shoved her in the shoulder; whereupon she reciprocated with feigned irritation, but grinned widely all the while.

“All right now, children,” said Dahro with a laugh. “Into the hill with you.”

When the whole house travelled together in such a fashion – and before darkness had fallen, at that – all went into the hill to change their shapes. They first descended to the lowermost level of the earthen hollow, and stood the West-hand exit open. Then they separated themselves a bit; and all in an instant, their heights dropped several feet, and they became a group of much differently-coloured wolves. It should be noted that the coat of each exactly matched their shade of hair, in their opposite shapes; and for that reason, a few of them were left with rather a strange hair colour in their human forms. Or, moreover – a rather strange colour, in regard to the remainder of the human race, to which they did not theoretically belong to begin with.

First to leave the hill, in the form of the largest wolf present, and shining in the hue of gleaming copper in the dying light, was Dahro. He took several steps out into the field, and peered all about, afterwards looking back at the others and gesturing for departure with his snout.

Next to emerge were Ara and Leyra, either of whom was coloured with nearly the same shade of bluish-grey, reminiscent of the appearance of distant winter mountains. Following them closely was Ayo, whose steel-grey coat, coupled with his swift movements, made him appear as a threatening storm-cloud.

After Ayo came Caramon and Dechtire, who were both shaded with the deep blackness of midnight. As they exited the hill, they ran to either side of the emerging procession, and superseded with their speed even the place of Dahro.

Coming behind at something of a more languid pace were Baer and Ima. The former glinted auburn, with his bright coat red as an Irishman’s; while the latter came along painted in the shade of chocolate, a colour quite as untainted as the soft presence of the earth beneath her paws. Faevin sprang out behind her, moving as the dark brown, shifting shape of a tree in shadow.

With a glance back at Nessa, Orin departed next. Perhaps with something of a mind at impressing his future mate, he danced along under the dissipating light of the sky, shining quite as if he had been touched by a ray of the sun itself. His fur was coloured a beautiful golden brown, which shone brightly against the darkening green of the field.

Having watched him for a moment or two, Nessa found herself hesitating. But suddenly she felt the gentle nudge of her mother’s snout, and emerged finally into the dusky evening.

She and Ceir took up a brisk pace, the better to gain the ground between themselves and the remainder of the pack. As night began to fall, Ceir shone out brilliantly against the gathering darkness, looking quite as pure and wholesome as newly fallen and untouched snow.

Now, Nessa’s colour quite matched her mother’s; but her eyes burnt black, where Ceir’s glowed blue; and her perfect whiteness betrayed still a certain anger of temperament, and volatility of demeanour.

Realising that she was, perhaps, dragging her feet just a bit, Nessa quickened her pace at a signal from Ceir. The two fell into step beside one another, and raced along under the newly arriving stars.

 

~

 

After mere minutes of running at their greatest speed, the pack arrived at the entrance to the meeting-place. It was nothing, really, but a small circle of missing earth, where the rest of the meadow was filled with tall grass; but when Dahro went to the circle, and gave a short yelp, there suddenly swung upwards a round wooden door, beneath which glowed a faint yellow light. Dahro led the pack down a long and narrow flight of steps, and they emerged into a much wider corridor, well-lit by many torches affixed to brackets upon the walls.

At the head of the corridor stood a tall man in a dark cloak, who looked to Dahro and said, “Welcome to Mindren, sire.”

Dahro nodded his head, and then proceeded down the hall, at about the midpoint of which the male and female members of his house filtered separately through two open doorways. In these chambers they changed their shapes, and dressed themselves in suits of clothes which sat ready for them.

After having done this, the pack issued once again into the corridor, and walked along till there could be seen up ahead a great amount of flickering candlelight. Here they passed through a tall archway, and entered into an enormous dining hall. Unchanged for centuries past, the hall – and all the fortress, at that – was made entirely of stone. In the soft yellow light, the ceiling was invisible; but below, there ran all round the walls great carvings of wolfen faces, snarling in readiness for war. All those many years ago, it should be said, there were far more of their kind than there were presently in Louisiana – even so many as to be separated into three distinct clans, which battled ever against each other for land and supremacy. It was almost strange to think of it now, what with their greatly diminished numbers, and necessary mode of clinging to one another for survival. Not to mention, there were presently other issues at hand, which made that old way of life seem an even greater distance away.

This hall was laid with five tables: four of which stood lengthwise beside one another, at over a hundred foot length apiece; and the last of which (somewhat longer  than the others, as all of its occupants sat only on the side of the table which faced the hall) stood widthwise at the head of them. Each of the tables was filled with persons of identical dress; for, on nights of feasting at Mindren, raiment consisted of a uniform array of sable garments. The men were clad in fine trousers and shirts, and the women in long gowns. Yet each wore a light cloak over all, fastened at the neck with a silver brooch, which was imprinted with the seal of the people. It consisted of a cross with arms of equal length, to make four small square sections. In the top right and bottom left were identical likenesses of wolfen heads, each turned inward to face an arm of the cross. In the top left and bottom right were etched, respectively, an
“N”
and an
“E.”

Na Endai.

It was obvious that Dahro’s party was the last to arrive; and the sire looked with a genial expression towards the head table, at which a great, broad-shouldered man rose from his seat. The man’s hair reached quite all the way down to those massive shoulders, and was of a grey colour that rather matched that of Ayo’s.

This man’s name was Morachi. He sat at the exact centre of the head table; for he was, in earnest, the head of all that hall. The King of Mindren, he was called. The members of his line, which numbered thirty persons in all, were seated with him at table.

“Welcome, Dahro,” said Morachi, in a voice which boomed out over all the tables, and reverberated like a living thing off of the walls. “Late as usual, I see!”

“Forgive me, Morachi,” said Dahro. “I mean no offence, brother!”

“Ah, but I know! Worry not, Dahro. Take your seats, all you tardy guests – and we shall begin.”

Dahro’s house took their places at the head of the table nearest the door. It was well known, if not oft spoken, that this house was stronger than all the other four, and perhaps even more so than many of the families who dwelt at Mindren. Dahro’s might was once dwarfed only by Morachi’s; but in his advanced years, his children usurped his title of strength. Caramon was trumped only by Morachi in speed, agility and power – for the man’s might seemed not to have been affected by the passing of the years, though he
had thus far gathered to himself a whole five-and-sixty. But Nessa was her brother’s undisputed successor.

The new arrivals adopted the silence of the hall. All eyes looked to Morachi; and the man remained standing, as he held out his arms to his guests. At the two tables nearest the West-hand wall sat the inhabitants of Mindren, who were not members of the royal line, and who numbered four-and-ninety persons. At the third and fourth tables sat those who had travelled to the meeting-place from their own homes (which could only have numbered, in a simple calculation based upon aforementioned totals, six-and-seventy).

After this gesture of affection, Morachi resumed his seat. He cleared his throat, and clapped his hands; and a moment later, there came a great number of servants streaming through the two doorways in the East-hand wall. These servants were enormous, ugly wolves who stood on two legs, with bent backs and, in many cases, humps upon them. They carried large trays in either hand, all filled with the first course of food and drink. Each of them wore round their necks a shining silver choker, locked at the back of the head to prevent removal, from which there dangled a small round medallion. They had been known, in many instances, to attempt breaking the medallion away from the choker – but never had they succeeded.

After the tables had been served, Morachi clapped his hands once again. Half of the servants filed out of the hall, to return to the kitchens; and half remained behind, stationed with their backs pressed against the wall, and their trays aloft.

“Enjoy your meal, my brothers and sisters!” said Morachi. “After we have eaten, we shall discuss current affairs. But do take your time! Life is, indeed, too short to spend not enjoying one’s food.”

The hall went to eating, then; and three courses later, after the mess of dishes had been cleared away, the servants departed from the hall. The doors were fastened behind them.

“Well, then!” said Morachi. “To business!”

He looked round at the faces which filled the hall, and smiled broadly. “We are approaching an important date,” he said. “In a few short months, our youngest generation shall come of age – and will be joined together with their mates!”

There was a round of polite cheering from all five tables. Now, Nessa would not have gone so far, as either to express any sort of displeasure, or even to frown; but she could not help thinking her own thoughts, as all of the other tables fell to indulging in whispers concerning the ceremony, and the many festivities that would precede and follow it.

The pairings were made sometimes only days after an Endalin child had been born (Nessa and Orin had been paired, when Nessa was but six weeks old, and Orin but three). This way, it could be assured that there were equal numbers of male and female children; and if there were not, then by this method, there was quite enough time for adjustments to be made. Due to this manner of assignment, an Endalin was sometimes paired with someone considerably older or younger than him or herself.

“The ceremony, as you all know,” continued Morachi, “will be held on the first of January. It will be a beautiful affair, I assure you – for, after all, we shall not see another for more than two decades!”

Nessa watched almost sadly, as Caramon and Dechtire joined hands, each beaming quite as brightly as could be. Faevin leaned down to kiss Leyra’s cheek; and the latter blushed in rather a lovely fashion.

Even as she saw these things, she somehow did not expect the feel of Orin’s arm, as he wrapped it about her shoulders. She felt him kiss the top of her head, and became, in that moment, all the more melancholy. She looked to him with a faint smile, and studied for a moment his face, which was so very handsome that it could have indeed been called beautiful. His golden hair stuck up all over his head, in a manner that was not messy, but in some way endearing. His green eyes went so far as to sparkle, as they looked at her; and she felt not at all averse to the action, as he moved to kiss her lips. And yet, when they parted, her heart became undeniably heavy.

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