An excerpt from my short story, “Steer a Pale Course”

by Gail Z. Martin

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.

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