Staff of Winter, Part Two - Annwyn
The group returned to York Castle the following morning, as commanded. Meeting Myrrdin, they walked quickly through the icy streets to All Hallows church, entering the Catacombs though the crypt. With the druid leading, they made their way through the now-familiar passageways. At one point, a huge spider emerged from the darkness ahead of them, but with a gesture Myrrdin sent it scuttling away.
They soon reached the aqueduct room and found it changed once again. Water flowed from each of the eight aqueducts, tumbling into the central pool in a happy, babbling cascade. The pool itself, which the companions had seen in the past as a stagnant puddle, a roaring whirlpool, and a placid pool, was also different, bubbling and rippling with unseen currents.
As the group stepped into the chamber, the pool changed once more, the water suddenly agitated, roiling and boiling up. The druid spoke in a soft voice. “Elunéd, it is Myrddin.”
The water stilled, and a green-haired head emerged slowly from the water.
The druid turned to the companions. “Allow me to introduce Elunéd. She is a naiad, a water nymph of Uaine Dachaig. She agreed to allow me to bring her here, to watch and guard this pool. Since the shadow hunters of the Badb made their incursion into the Catacombs, and we used this pool more than once as a focus for eldritch travel, it has become clear that this is a crucial location and one we must secure. Elunéd is a powerful guardian and will help prevent this pool being used by Morgause.”
Myrddin introduced the three friends to the naiad, who smiled shyly at the group before sinking back into the pool. Wasting no time, the druid bid them stand around the pool, each at a different point of the compass. As they took their places, Sophia spoke. “How do we get back from Annwyn?” she asked.
Myrddin looked at her. “A good question. To be honest, I am not sure. I will transport you to a circle of standing stones in the heart of Annwyn, and you should be able to use those to return. You may need to use your wits, and your Solstice Stones, to aid you.”
The companions seemed satisfied with this, and as they moved into position, Myrddin began to chant, softly at first. As his voice grew in volume, the waters of the pool began to swirl, and the four Solstice Stones began to glow. With the water becoming a whirlpool and the light almost blinding, the friends felt dizzy and fell forward into the cold waters of the pool with a splash. Each immediately felt as though they had been thrust into a washing machine, tumbling end over end through the water, holding their breath.
Suddenly the water disappeared and they landed, feet first, on solid ground. Wiping water from their eyes, and blinking to see after the blinding light, they stumbled down a small hill. Recovering breath, they looked around, taking in the rough circle of standing stones atop the small hill, through which they had arrived. They stood in a natural clearing, surrounded by forest. The sounds of birdsong, and the wind in the trees, wafted across them, and they were surrounded by the smells of loam, trees, and the perfume of forest flowers, the fresh smells of late spring.
Flexing his wings, Storm took to the sky, flying up and out of the clearing. Turning in a circle, he took in the huge forest, extending to the horizon in almost all directions. To the east, heavy mist lay over the woods, and beyond he could make out, faintly, a change in the terrain; mountains, perhaps, or broken, jagged wastelands.
Returning to the clearing, the dragonborn conversed with his friends. Sophia located a game trail, and they followed it through the woods for several hours. Coming across a stream, they paused to fill their waterskins with its cool, fresh water.
They continued along the trail for another hour, before Storm picked up a sound on the edge of hearing: the baying of hounds, coming rapidly toward them! Thinking quickly, each of the friends climbed a tree. As the yelps of the hounds came closer, an incredible silver stag bolted along the game trail they had been following, right past the trees they had climbed. Seconds later, a pack of sleek, grey-coated hounds bounded from the forest around them. Several picked up the scent of the companions, and within moments the base of each tree was surrounded by barking and baying hounds.
The clear call of a hunting horn sounded, close by, and a magnificent white horse cantered into sight along the trail. Its coat and mane were so white they shimmered in the dappled light piercing the canopy of trees. A fair elf of noble countenance rode on its back, pulling it up with nought but a word upon seeing his hounds at bay. He had ageless features, striking in their perfection, and as his horse came to a halt he looked up at the companions, before leaping from the back of his mount, swinging to the ground with easy confidence.
In one hand he carried a great longbow of burnished ash, bearing ancient Gaelic runes along its length in silver inlay, and on the saddle of his horse was a quiver holding yard-long arrows, fletched with swan feathers. He wore comfortable hunting clothes of the finest quality, sporting beautiful embroidery and accented with a golden brooch at the shoulder. At his side, a longword was sheathed in a beautiful leather scabbard.
He looked around, his horse standing obediently still, the hounds still jumping and barking around the base of the trees. His gaze rested on the companions, moving from one to the next, and he let out a musical laugh. “Ah, my hounds, you have found me three partridges in their trees!”
“Not the stag, for which I was hoping, but nonetheless, an interesting quarry,” he continued in a voice as smooth as honey. “Now, you have interrupted my hunt. Come down! Tell me of yourselves, and by what right you trespass in the lands of Gwydion.”
The companions climbed down, the hounds jumping up at them. The graceful elf clicked his fingers. “Heel!” he commanded, and immediately the hounds trotted away from the companions and came to heel behind him.
“Now, I must curse you for interrupting my hunt. I was on the tail of that silver stag, and this time I would have had him! Now, your names please, since you are trespassers in my lands.”
The companions introduced themselves, and Gwydion pressed them on their reasons for trespassing in Annwyn.
“We had no idea that these were your lands,” explained Storm. “We have come from another land, from England.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Gwydion. “The legendary seat of King Arthur, and Merlin.”
“They have passed away now, I think,” replied Storm.
“Indeed, they were figures of legend,” answered Gwydion. “But great nonetheless. And perhaps not beyond the veil quite so far as you may think, for the wheel of fate turns, always.”
“What brings you from the lands of Albion?” he continued.
“We have been sent on a quest by an elf,” replied Storm.
“An elf?” noted Gwydion. “Elves and men are friends, in the lands of Albion?”
“Allied, in troubled times,” explained Storm.
“Indeed. I have heard, on the wind, of the resurgence of the Badb. You fight in this war?” The companions nodded in response.
“And who is this elf, one of my kindred, who sent you to my lands, and for what purpose?”
“His name is Myrrdin, and he sent us to retrieve something,” replied Storm.
The elf prince laughed, deep and long. “Myrddin!” he exclaimed. “Indeed! I am proved right, am I not? All well and good. I sense you are not hostile, and the laws of hospitality dictate that I should welcome you to my hall.”
The friends thanked Gwydion for his welcome, and followed him through the woods, his hounds bounding through the forest around them, while his horse followed obediently behind. They walked for a few hours, and Gwydion’s deep love of his land was very clear as he pointed out and named every copse and glade, every stream, every waterfall, almost every plant and animal in his lands. The ash, the alder, the birch, the mighty oak, the roe deer, the fallow deer, the birds in the trees, red squirrels, badger sets, rabbit warrens, he named all with enthusiasm and obvious love.
The journey seemed to pass very quickly, and although the companions had walked for several hours, they sensed that they had travelled much further than they could possibly have journeyed in that time, with miles and miles having slipped smoothly under their feet . Each of the companions felt some kind of enchantment, as though Gwydion’s bond with his land enabled them to move effortlessly through it.
They emerged from the woods and began to descend a slope, looking down on an incredible view. “Behold, my home! The great hall of Lys Derwen.” announced Gwydion, as the companions took in the sight of a hall formed from, and around, a vast living oak tree.
The elf prince led them down the slope and across a beautifully carved walkway, welcoming them to his hall. Soft golden light spilled out from the doors and windows as they approached. Gwydion’s horse trotted off to one side, taking itself to its stable, while his hounds bounded in the other direction to their kennels. The companions were impressed with these phenomenally well trained creatures.
Gwydion strode into his hall, calling out. “Derriol! Brea! Ffreath! We have guests! Come, greet them!”
In a few moments, three young ladies emerged from doors to the rear of the main hall.
The first, introduced as Derriol, was a brown-haired elf maid with striking violet eyes. She wore superbly flexible mithril chainmail over comfortable brown leathers, and had a slender longsword with an oaken grip and a silver hawk’s head pommel belted at her waist. Meeting the eye of each of the companions in turn, a note of challenge in her gaze, she nodded in greeting but did not offer them a smile.
The second, introduced as Brea, was a pale, golden-haired elf maid with sky blue eyes, graceful and gentle. Shy, barely looking the companions in the eye, she wore a simple white dress trimmed and belted with gold, and her pale skin seemed to glow from within. She gently curtsied and gave a shy smile of welcome.
The third, introduced as Ffreath, was a vibrant elf maid with piercing blue eyes, tanned skin and honey-blonde hair. Her keen eyes looked at the companions inquisitively. She wore a simple blue dress with a slender oaken wand belted at her waist with a golden sash. At her wrists rested a matched pair of golden bracelets, studded with small sapphires that matched her blue eyes. “Well met, to each of you,” she said with a confident smile.
Gwydion introduced each of the companions by name. “Now, my daughters, ready meat and mead for our guests. They have had a very long journey.” As his daughters left the hall, the elf prince bid the group rest, before leaving to attend to his horse and hounds.
The companions spoke among themselves for a while, recalling sufficient Welsh Gaelic to determine that the names of Gwydion’s daughters would translate into English as Courage, Compassion, and Wit.
After some time, they were called to dinner at the hall’s long table. Gwydion’s daughters brought in steaming platters of sliced venison, vegetables and mushrooms from the forest, all beautifully cooked, and flagons of honeyed mead.
Gwydion, sitting at the head of the table, gestured to the companions. “Please, eat, and tell us of yourselves.”
The three friends enjoyed the fabulous food, while the elf prince pressed them. “Tell me more of this quest you have been sent on by Myrrdin. I am intrigued.”
“Our land has been condemned to an eternal winter by the magic of the Witches,” explained Storm. “We have been sent to recover an item that could help us destroy the defences around the Staff of Winter, the artefact that is causing this endless winter.”
“Interesting,” said Gwydion. “And what is this item?”
“Myrddin called it the tree of life,” replied Storm.
“Ah, Crann na Beatha. Legend indeed,” said Gwydion thoughtfully.
Ffreath spoke. “Crann na Beatha. I know of this ‘tree of life’. Although my father is the lord of this land, he does not own Crann na Beatha. It may be found here, but only appears to those in desperate need, and then only if they are worthy of such aid. In order to find it, legend holds that the worthy must test themselves, journeying east from here, through the forests of Annwyn.”
“Aye,” added Gwydion. “To the very hill of Hynafol Gwenithfaen, deep within the twisted nightland of Tir Tywilwich, the land of darkness to the east.”
“I am curious,” stated Ffreath. “Should you find it, how will Crann na Beatha help you succeed in your quest? This endless winter you speak of seems a terrible bane.”
“The defences around the Staff of Winter will probably include undead,” said Storm. “We are not sure exactly, but we have been told it will help.
“You are very trusting, aren’t you?” observed Ffreath.
“Sister, often trust is what holds people together,” interjected Brea in a soft voice.
Ffreath smiled. “Yes, that is often true. But just as often, a little scepticism is helpful.”
Derriol interrupted her sister. “Actions speak louder than words, as you know only too well.” She turned to Storm. “It is strange that you are not aware of the nature of your quest, or how the item you seek will aid you. Do you even know what it looks like?”
“We have been told that it may look life different things, and that it can shift shapes.” answered Storm.
“A challenge for you, then,” stated Derriol bluntly.
“Indeed,” Storm nodded. “Do you have any advice for us on how to find the tree?”
Gwydion answered. “As Ffreath said, legend holds that the worthy must test themselves, journeying east from here, toward the rising sun. Through the forests of Annwyn, through the broken, twisted nightlands of Tir Tywilwich, and to the hill of Hynafol Gwenithfaen. Atop that hill, should you prove worthy, legend holds that you may find Crann na Beatha, the tree of life.”
The feast continued, with Gwydion’s daughters serving the companions fresh platters of venison and pints of honeyed mead. The three friends felt a satisfying, warm glow spreading through their bodies, and the repast finished with Gwydion proposing a toast to the success of the quest, and all around the table drank deep.
The companions were shown to small but comfortable and exquisitely furnished chambers to rest. Having bid goodnight to her chaperone Brea, Sophia called the group together for a discussion, and they agreed to set out for Hynafol Gwenithfaen in the morning.
After a wonderful night of almost dreamless sleep, Gwydion greeted them heartily. “Good morning!” he called. “This is an auspicious day for your quest to begin, my friends. The sun is shining over the land of Annwyn, and my daughters rose early this morning to bake you Hud-Bara, the special bread made only in my hall.”
Brea came forward with a package wrapped in linen, handing it to Sophia. “My lady,” she smiled at Sophia, “all three of us laboured together this morning to bake this Hud-Bara, our enchanted bread. It heals when eaten, and adds to the courage and the wit of the consumer. May it serve you well on your quest, and aid you to success.”
The companions thanked Gwydion and his daughters for this generous gift, and for their hospitality. “Farewell,” said the elven lord with a smile. “If you do not pass this way again, tell Myrddin that the day of reckoning is close at hand.”
Wondering at this cryptic message, and beginning to suspect there was more to Myrddin than they had believed, the companions set out to the east. For the first hour they walked, with the sun on their faces, through the rolling meadows surrounding Gwydion’s hall. These soon gave way to hilly woodlands, and the group continued on for several hours, covering a great distance as the forest became thicker, deeper and older.
At one point they crossed over a rickety old wooden bridge, built by hands unknown, before continuing on into the increasingly dark and ancient forest.
The thick canopy above their heads blocked most of the sunlight from above, but strange luminous fungi provided eerie illumination.
The companions continued onward, becoming increasingly concerned that, without sight of the sun, they could not be sure whether they were still heading in the right direction. Storm considered taking to the air, but the trees were too thick for him to extend his wings. As they walked on, they heard a haunting tune in the distance, played on pan pipes. Sophia immediately plugged her ears, and her friends followed suit. Cautiously, they continued on, ignoring the ethereal music.
As the day wore on, they noticed a mist forming around their feet, slowly creeping through the deep forest. Gradually, as they continued along the path, the mist became thicker and thicker, until they were surrounded by a white veil. The companions were just about able to see one another, and the trees very close to them, but no further.
The hairs on the back of Sophia’s neck began to stand on end, and Storm’s nose began to tingle. They became aware of strange sounds on the edge of hearing, and movements in their peripheral vision, and all of them could feel magic in the air all around. Gradually, the friends started to feel more and more disoriented, stumbling through the mists, increasingly dizzy, seeing nothing but the white veil, holding hands and remaining vaguely aware of each other, but even that a tenuous link at best.
Suddenly, ahead of them, they saw Manzio emerge from the mist. A stone archway became visible around him, and he stepped out from its shadow, emerging into broad daylight. He blinked, covering his eyes, bumping into a stone wall, squinting against the bright sun. The companions could smell cinnamon and freshly baked bread.
They watched as Manzio looked around. “It cannot be,” he breathed. They saw him walk, as if in a dream, into a narrow alley surrounding a villa, on the dusty outskirts of a town. It was late afternoon, and the waning sun was on Manzio’s back.
Sophia gasped, an edge of fear in her voice. “No. Oh, no,” she breathed. “This is place where Manzio was before, when he contacted me.”
Shocked and disturbed in equal measure, the companions looked on powerlessly, through the mist, as Manzio entered his family villa, gasping with concern as he encountered the assassins and his father within, observing the events of The Mists of Naples as if alongside their friend.
With the shout of frustration and rage from Justus ringing in their ears, the companions saw Manzio fade from sight, as the vision of Naples and the Alfredo family villa was engulfed by the mists.
The companions looked around, still totally disoriented. The mist that seemed to swallow Manzio has engulfed each of them. However, one thing has changed. When the vision started, they were together, hand in hand. But no longer. Each of the companions was utterly alone, separated, surrounded by mist, unable to see even a hand in front of a face.
Storm called out, but there was no reply, his shout seeming to die in the mist, failing to carry beyond the length of his arm.
Staying calm, Sophia tried to make mental contact with Storm, and felt something emerging from the mist . . .