turned sharp right to avoid a dip in the land, away from the river that flowed
swiftly along the valley bottom. He followed a faintly marked trail, one by
which he began to ascend the bracken-covered hillside. His pace slowed as the
slope became steeper. The path curved as it levelled out and followed the
contour of the land. He found himself high above a rushing stream. Soon the way
led down towards the streambed. He left the bracken behind and followed the
watercourse up into the hills. At times his route took him beside the stream, at
others through it when the gap between the gill walls narrowed. In places he
struggled to climb sheer slippery rock faces.
was some time before he reached a stretch of bare rock that would lead him to
the moorland high above. Despite the early summer sun, a chill breeze cooled the
air which made him shiver in his damp clothing. The valley bottom was a long way
below, the distant river snaking away into the haze. Smoke, rising from the
fires of a settlement he had left at daybreak, could be seen faintly in the
misty atmosphere. His brief stay with the friendly villagers had refreshed and
empowered him. They had replenished his pack, which bulged with fresh supplies.
turned for one last look and froze. The smoke from the cooking fires had turned
to thick columns of black. The village had been torched. His pursuers were only
hours behind him. Nerian felt a cold shiver of fear, as well as guilt about the
danger to which he had exposed the residents. For a month there had been no sign
of the pursuing band, so he had assumed they had lost his trail. Several weeks
earlier, he had become aware of being tracked, but had been able to keep ahead
of the hunters.
was not until he had witnessed the burning of a second village, early on in the
chase, that it occurred to him the destruction might be linked to him. He had
stayed overnight in both of the isolated hamlets, grateful for fresh food and
company. After that, until yesterday, he had deliberately avoided contact with
anyone. Only then, confident he had evaded his trackers, had he visited the
village to replenish his supplies.
why was he being followed? Nerian had no special talents. Neither had he any
secrets, nor did he own anything of special significance - nothing that anyone
might consider to be of value to someone else. He was merely a traveller making
his way home from foreign lands. So why were they stalking him? Although they
had no scruples about destroying anyone who provided him with shelter, he could
not know whether they intended to kill him. Perhaps they wanted to take him
prisoner? Unlikely - his family was not wealthy, so ransom could not be a
reason. Unless he had been mistaken for someone else? What was it about him?
What had he seen or done that could have brought all this upon him? Contemplate
as much as he might, he could think of nothing.
the distance the rumble of thunder echoed up the valley. Beyond the fires of
destruction, massive cumulus clouds were building. He needed to take cover
quickly, but not only from the coming storm. There was still some distance to go
beside the streambed before he reached the open moorland. Luckily, Nerian knew
of a place of shelter close by. He turned back towards the stream and followed
its path for a short distance. His feet splashed through the last part as he
slid over the moss covered rocky bed. The gill sides closed in. He approached a
waterfall that towered high above him. It spanned the entire width of the
channel. Nerian moved confidently through the cascade and stepped into a hidden
chamber beyond. Water dripped from his clothes he walked further into the
cavern. Sufficient light filtered through to illuminate the inside. Carefully he
picked his way over the damp rock. His wet tracks quickly merged into the moist
surface, leaving no sign of his passing.
good thirty paces inside a wall of rock sealed the way. Nerian stopped before
reaching it. High in the cave wall, to his left, was a shallow ledge. From
below, it appeared to be nothing more than a crack in the surface. On the ground
lay a pine log. He lifted it and rested a flattened end over the lip above. The
pole leaned steeply against the wall. Cautiously he scrambled up the unstable
wooden prop, using stubby remains of branches to support his hands and feet.
After he had eased his way onto the ledge, he raised the log and carefully laid
it behind him. He stretched out, using his pack as a pillow, prepared to wait
for the storm to abate. At the entrance he had left no signs of his movement so
was secure in the knowledge that he would be invisible from the floor below.
Very few people knew of the chamber. Even fewer were aware of the ledge. Nerian
had learnt about it from an elderly traveller. Several times since then, he had
used it as a place of shelter. Never had fear for his life compelled him to take
was only days away from his destination, yet to continue his journey would be
foolish. After seeing the smoke in the valley, it was apparent to him that to go
home would expose his family and village to danger. The villagers were capable
of protecting themselves against everyday dangers. But a group of well-armed,
highly trained and disciplined fighting men was something beyond their
experience. From what he had observed, it was only the places where he had
stayed that had been destroyed. Some knowledge, something he had seen or maybe
something he had picked up, no matter how trivial to him, must be vital to his
sky darkened, taking on a green and eerie hue. Rumbles became crashes that made
the whole ground vibrate. Brilliant flashes of light lit the inside of the
chamber. Heavy spots of rain began to fall, slowly at first then turning into a
torrent. The waterfall became a raging sheet. The stream swelled. Soon, in full
spate, it hurtled along the narrow watercourse to the valley below. The rising
waters obliterated all traces of his journey from the river. So heavy was the
driving rain and hail, that any signs of his passing through the bracken were
washed away. He had disappeared, quite possibly swept away by the flood.
came and Nerian ate a little. He dozed as the storm finally passed into the
distance. Further rumblings and occasional flashes continued through much of the
night. Intermittent periods of heavy rain fell, feeding the waters as they swept
over the mouth of the cave. Inside, the water level had risen sufficiently to
cover the ground some distance into the chamber.
mind filled with his concerns. Was there something he knew that his pursuers
sought, some knowledge he alone possessed? Perhaps they believed he had seen, or
heard something they wanted to remain secret. From what he had been able to see,
they had neither tortured nor questioned anyone at length. By contrast their
searches had been thorough. They killed without mercy, but without undue
cruelty. Whatever it was they thought he knew, it was of great significance to
them - something so important they had to silence everyone with whom Nerian had
been in contact. He had seen and heard many things, but he could not recall
anything that might justify such violence. Whatever it was, it remained hidden
deep within his mind.
broke. Nerian decided to remain within the chamber. He had sufficient supplies
to last a week - considerably longer if he was careful. The occasional visit
to the entrance for water was a risk he would have to take. The less he moved
around outside, the fainter the chance his enemies had of finding him. If he
lost them here he would be free to start backtracking. Only if he discovered why
he was being hunted might he find a solution to his predicament.
remained inside the cavern for five long and tedious days. Although he quickly
formed the habit of sitting by the entrance during the day, he dared not step
outside into the sunshine. Even so, he was careful not to leave any tracks
between there and his bolthole. The sheet of falling water had eased
considerably since the day of the storm. With his back to the cave wall, he
could make himself believe he was looking through windows of glass he had seen
in cities far away. He had light and could make out vague outlines. It made him
feel as if he was still a part of the outside world. Mid-day approached.
Suddenly he stiffened. Through the curtain of water he could make out two
blurred shapes, moving in his direction. He fled to the back and climbed onto
the ledge. The log he pulled up behind him.
flicker of dust, disturbed in his haste, glistened in the air beneath. He prayed
it would not be noticed by anyone who entered. Away from the entrance and cut
off from all exterior sounds, Nerian remained motionless. Formless shadows
danced across the waterfall and then disappeared. He waited. Suddenly, two dark
shapes charged through the watery curtain, swords at the ready. Nerian ducked
his head. He dared not move. From below came sounds of movement. The intruders
worked slowly and methodically, searching for signs of occupation. Eventually
the men halted, standing directly beneath him.
here," one of them uttered, breaking the silence.
about that ledge above you?" the other asked. "I'll give you a leg up to
need, it's only a crack; nobody could squeeze in there. Let's go."
been here," the second voice added. "I can smell them. They've moved on
now, but it can't have been all that long ago. The scent's still fresh."
on, let's go, they can't have gone far."
hurried outside, leaving Nerian shaking a little. It had been a narrow escape.
If only they had realised just how fresh the scent was. They might decide to pay
a return visit, so he would have to be careful about going down to the entrance.
At the moment it was too dangerous to leave the cavern. Nevertheless, move on he
must, and soon. It would be safer to travel by night, although that would create
difficulties in negotiating the rocky streambed.
had learnt something about his visitors. Their accents had revealed the men's
origins, which gave rise to more questions. Why were highly trained soldiers of
Lord Sigeberht, the ruler of Passiniera, hunting him? What had he done to offend
the tyrant? Nerian had passed through the wretched country only once, saving him
several months of travel. To escape attention he had used minor routes, which
avoided main towns and troop concentrations. Despite being warned to keep clear
of the land, he had thought the risk worth taking, but now he was beginning to
alter his opinion.
came to mind. Rarely had he spoken to anyone; only when running low on supplies
had he risked a visit to a quiet village or isolated farmhouse. Wherever
possible he had lived off the land. Surely they would not have tracked him all
this way for poaching a rabbit on royal lands? That woman! The thought suddenly
occurred to him! He had helped a young woman to cross a mountain stream. She had
been in a hurry, with only a maidservant for company. At the time it was a
situation that had struck him as unusual. In a country as dangerous as
Passiniera it was rare for a woman - a wealthy woman from her appearance - to
travel without an armed escort. Winter was almost over, but the high ground had
been icy and treacherous.
had been grateful for his help in guiding her, her companion and their horses
across the torrent. As a token of her gratitude she had given him a Crook,
despite his protestations that no reward was necessary. If he was honest with
himself, it had been a pleasure to help. She was young, dark-haired and very
attractive, but a worried, almost haunted look was noticeable in her eyes. While
they were speaking, frequently she had cast anxious glances back towards the
distant mountains. The staff was light, amazingly so, ornamented with a few
simple carvings along its length. Of the mysterious young woman Naomi, whose
name he had eventually managed to discover, he knew no more. Their paths had
diverged shortly afterwards.
while later, near the summit of a ridge that overlooked the valley along which
the women had ridden, Nerian paused to catch his breath. He could make out a
large party of riders in the distance, heading up the vale towards the tiny dots
the two women had now become. Then he was over the ridge and striding across the
moors. The view behind was lost. Perhaps the Crook was some family heirloom?
Even so, it hardly seemed worthwhile to track him a thousand miles across
several countries to retrieve it. Why would they burn and kill all with whom he
had been in contact? Nothing made sense. Once he was in daylight he would take
time to study the object more carefully. Although he doubted it would do
anything to help him. For the moment it was too dark. Long before the pursuit
began, the Crook was the only item that had been added to his baggage, apart
from food. It seemed strange he had not thought about the object sooner. The
woman had been in his thoughts often, but not the Crook. Nerian had paid it no
attention. It seemed as if it had been with him forever, its acquisition wiped
from his mind.
remainder of the day passed without incident. Later, in the early hours of the
morning, Nerian decided it was time to leave. He dropped his possessions onto
the ground and clambered down the pole. Careful not to make any marks, he
lowered the log and manoeuvred it to rest against the base of the cavern's
back wall. For several minutes he stood silently beside the entrance, but could
hear no sound other than that of running water. He took a deep breath, picked up
his pack and stepped outside to stand alongside the rock-face at the side of the
he moved away from the cascade, keeping to the water's edge until the noise
faded. Standing motionless, Nerian allowed his ears to become accustomed to the
sounds of the night. It was quiet but not unnaturally so. The scurrying of tiny
animals echoed up the gill quite distinctly. From nearby the sudden hooting of
an owl made him jump. Confident he was alone, he climbed out onto the rocky edge
of the stream. Using the Crook as a support and guide, he worked his way down
the narrow channel, criss-crossing the stream as the pathway necessitated. A
heavy mist swirled around him. On higher ground it would be impossible to see
further than an arm's length. It was mid-summer and, with the onset of an
early dawn, the sky began to lighten. A few hundred paces downstream, where the
rocky sides gave way to steeply rising hillside, he moved away from the
watercourse. The moors lay in that direction. He turned and climbed towards
from Shadows from a Time Long Past Copyright Brian R Hill 2010
Number: 322596 - UK Copyright Service