The woman looked up and squinted into the setting sun, letting her veil fall to uncover her face. At home, she had been called Seabhag. The Hawk.
As a young girl she had already demonstrated keen sight. As she had grown, she quickly became one of the most skilled hunters in the clan, despite her age. The Losgadh people lived in the old ruins next to the mountains of the North Wall, where the Men of the Kings had used to live. Her people had changed that, a long time ago, with the aid of the Tall-men north of the mountains.
Losgadh. The Firebrands, they had been called. As the stories went, a long time ago, they had been the fiercest fighters in that war. Centuries of oppression under the cruel Men of the Kings had taken their toll, and that vengeance was unleashed in a great war. They had left their mark on history. The Men of the Kings were no more, and now the Firebrands had taken their home as had been done to them so long ago.
Seabhag smiled slightly and turned back to resume her journey. She liked history. It could be poetic at times.
She was following a lone bird that seemed to circle overhead. The bird from the dreams. Oh, the dreams. They had recurred for almost two weeks now, and never made any sense. This bird always appeared, circling above as flames and battle raged. Then it would swoop down and scoop up a piece of bread before messily and noisily shaking it to bits and eating the pieces.
There had been tales of such strange dreams before. Some said they were premonitions of things to come, gifts sent by the Great Spirits from across the world. But as it is forbidden for mortals to know what lies ahead in time, such foresight had to be obscured by symbols and mystery. Only the very clever would piece together the meaning of their dreams, and so be prepared for what might lurk around the corner.
And then the bird had appeared.
There had been no hesitation. When such a sign appears, one must pursue it. The journey had brought her across hill and field, through forests and ruins, across rivers and great gorges, until now she stood on a rocky cliff above fields covered in dense fog. Some said they were haunted by ghosts of the dead, but that was rubbish. The dead were dead.
In any case, the bird was not leading her there.
The sun was almost completely set when the bird at last alighted at the top of a tall tower. Chunks of the wall had crumbled and fallen apart. Weathered wooden slats formed a spiral staircase inside to a room at the top. Seabhag knew what to do.
At the top of the tower was a room encrusted in bird droppings. The bird was perched on the sill of one of the narrow windows letting in thin slats of light into the ruin. She could see now that it was a falcon.
It made sense, given the rest of the room. This had been a falconer’s tower. A leather falconer’s glove hung from the wall. Scraps of decayed meat flecked one part of the wall, no doubt where chunks were cut up and fed to the hunting birds. Across the room, by the windows, were collapsed and twisted wicker that had clearly been cages for the birds to roost, once upon a time.
Seabhag turned back to the bird. It seemed to be studying her intently. “Why have you brought me here?” she asked.
The falcon cocked its head and gave a short cry. Seabhag shook her head and laughed. She was talking to birds now. Good thing no one she knew was here. Clearly she would spend the night here; there was no sense in trying to make the trek home in the night. And who knows? Perhaps the journey was not over. Perhaps the falcon was merely resting here for the night.
As Seabhag turned to look for suitable bedding material, she froze. It couldn’t be.
A pale blue apparition shimmered in the stairway before her. It appeared to be a woman. A ghost, like in the old stories? But the dead were dead.
And then, it spoke.
“Why have you come here?” It was a woman’s voice, curious and not unfriendly.
“Who are you?” Seabhag replied. “And you speak my language?”
The ghostly woman laughed. “Once upon a time, you would have learned to speak mine. But I can tell that you are a child of the Ruadh, the Hill-men of Rhudaur. Once upon a time, I dwelt in this tower and was friends with your people.” She gazed sadly at the falcon perched on the window. “But those days are gone, like the sun beneath the horizon. But unlike the sun, we shall never see those days again.”
Seabhag was mesmerized by the apparition before her. She had a graceful nobility and was rather beautiful, despite the shifting features. “Are you the one who sent me my dreams?”
“Dreams?” The woman laughed. “What are dreams but memories of that which we have never seen? I could no more send you dreams than command the stars to stop shining, or direct the wind where to blow. Tell me about these dreams.”
“I am not certain that I should,” Seabhag hesitated. “It is said that to understand one’s dreams is a quest for the dreamer to finish on her own.”
“You may be right,” sighed the woman. “I have not had anyone to talk to for some time. But your dreams involved my falcon, yes?”
Seabhag nodded. “You were the falconer?”
“Indeed I was. I would train the birds from this tower. We would keep watch over the hills around Fornost.”
“You belonged to the Men of the Kings?”
“I belonged to no man,” the woman said curtly. “But they were my people, yes. And your people and mine lived side-by-side…until one day the Ruadh turned against us. My tower burned…and my birds. All except for this one.”
“My people never would have lived with the Men of the Kings. They were oppressors who abused us!”
“That was true in the lands to the east,” the woman said, with a tone of sadness. “Your people overthrew the wicked and cruel kings, and they probably deserved it. But here…here we pledged to protect each other.” The ghost sighed, or perhaps it was just a draft in the ruined room. “Tell me, girl, what do you believe about honor?”
“A man without honor has forfeit his soul,” Seabhag recited, almost by rote. The hunters of the Losgadh took such matters seriously.
“Then what is to be done with an entire people who betrayed their kind?”
The words hung in the air for a short while. Seabhag smiled inwardly. This was a mere apparition, perhaps another dream. It could not hurt her. “I know somewhat of what you speak,” she replied boldly. “After the war which destroyed the Men of the Kings, some of the clans of my people deserted us. We were punished by the Tall-men for their mutiny.”
“You want revenge upon them, don’t you?” the woman asked softly. “You wish to tear down whatever they have built for themselves upon the backs of your suffering, and scatter them to the winds that they may never return?” The spirit walked — or drifted? — closer to Seabhag. “I can help you make that happen,” she whispered.
Seabhag’s heart felt like it had leapt into her mouth. “How?” she asked, hoping the nervousness did not enter her voice.
“The clans you speak of travelled this way seeking refuge,” the woman said. “And they settled not far from here.”
“Show me where they hide!” Seabhag’s eyes glinted. She had heard of this in stories. A quest, a coming-of-age, where she would prove herself and right many wrongs. This woman was to be her guide on this quest. Once the traitor clans were extinguished, she would be a hero among her people.
“I intend to,” smiled the woman. “You are skilled with the bow, I can tell. Allow me to provide you with another.”
The spirit crossed to the far wall, hovering over a stone brick in the floor. “Underneath here, my hidden stores.”
Seabhag eagerly followed the ghost, prying up the brick. Underneath was a trove of weaponry — bows of finer craft than her own, oiled and strung, preserved in this hidden cache, withstanding the strain of time. And bundles and bundles of arrows with red fletching lay underneath. They were shorter than she was used to, but still sharp after all these years.
And then she felt very, very cold.
You are skilled with the bow, but I have knowledge. With your body, and my mind, we will be unstoppable.
The voice was in her head! And the woman-spirit was nowhere to be found. Suddenly she could not move any more. Unbidden, her hands lifted and her head began to turn. Her eyes looked over them as her fingers flexed.
Please do not try to resist, girl. I will use you for my purposes and as a reward, you may live. I would like to not have to break your mind in order to accomplish this, though. Like I said, it has been very lonely…
She tried to scream. She tried to resist. But she was powerless. And she felt tired. So…very…tired…
♦ ♦ ♦
The woman looked up and squinted into the rising sun as a falcon circled overhead, then pulled her veil across her face. At home, she had been called Aiwendeth. The Falconer. Now, she was Olnathron. The Lady in Dreams. The Enforcer of Oaths. The Avenger of a civilization long smothered, though not wholly extinguished.
And the clans who broke their oaths would pay for their crimes…with their lives.