This is the start of a stand-alone (or two book set, not sure yet) story set in the Pictish lands and Dal Riata in the 400s or 500s.
Harrel stopped and listened. A fish-hunter glided overhead. Harrel “looked” and caught a glimpse of the way ahead through the bird’s eyes. White clumps and dark in green, paler green trees, no dim-eyes. Harrel sent silent thanks and a warning—feather hunters moved to the south, near the river. The pale-headed bird turned north and faded into the grey sky. Harrel resumed his search. The sheep were not far—far for a keen-eyed bird. For a man? He shrugged. At least the mist hadn’t killed the sheep this time.
Harrel walked with an easy stride along the track. Only he and Connal and a few women used the old, half-sunken ways, and even they went only after taking precautions. He touched the rowen sprig tucked into the sprig-slit on his hood. The way climbed up, onto harder ground, and he heard the sound of sheep. But were they the sheep of the family, or did others use these lands? He would know once he crossed the stream.
A set of edge stakes answered his question. Another family claimed the land by the old way. Evenly spaced, knee-high stakes marked off the edge of the pasture, separating grassy green from the wilder plants along the way. Ash wood, peeled and pale, to warn off the mist and the Old Folk both, Harrel noted. He nodded and continued along the old way. Not far for a sky hunter, but a ways for a man. Whoever – or whatever – had led the sheep away had moved swiftly. He shifted the straps on his bag. Or they had struck when Aelfie watched, the first watch of the night. That’s what he would have done. Two split-tailed dancers flew across the way. One stopped on the branch of an oak. The other continued on her way. Brown-caps, a yellow-throated weaver, and a morning-breaker all called from the woods on the left side of the road. The right side remained grass, as the fish-hunter’s eyes had shown. Harrel strode on.
“Mee-ee-eeh! Mee-ee-eeh!” a lamb bleated from behind a green wall of brush and young trees. Harrel moved more slowly, listening. he touched rowen once more, clearing his sight of any mistiness. Then he stepped to the side of the old way and removed his pack. He opened the top and pulled out two willow rods and two of hazel. Harrel eased the pack back onto his shoulders. An eater of the dead flew over. He looked. No tall-live moved or watched among the short-live. He thanked the bird and withdrew.
Harrel crossed the old way and found a well-trodden gap on the nettles and red-stem that grew on the grassy side of the way. He grasped one willow and one hazel rod in his left hand, tips down, and waved them back and forth with a flick of his wrist. A tiny wisp of mist floated up from the bare dirt and faded away. Had he not looked for it, he would never have seen it. Harrel walked ahead, moving with slow, quiet steps so he didn’t startle the sheep. They grazed, or nursed, and lay easily, chewing their cud. He glanced up. The sun would be between dawn and midday were the sky not so gray. All seemed well with the sheep as he walked among them, and none of the lambs showed signs of distress.
He climbed up the hill to near the crest. A burn flowed from between red and cream stones. No wonder the sheep acted sheep-like and quiet. No magic of bane could remain near the spring. He went to one knee in respect and dipped the tips of all four rods into the burn, just downstream of the pool. He moved them with the water’s flow, lifted them, then repeated the dipping twice more. then he took a bit of cake baked with honey from his pouch and set it in the grass in thanks.
Now he had only to gather the sheep, without a dog, and lead them back to the family. He began with the animals farthest uphill. Each one he brushed head to tail along the peak of the back with a pair of rods. Only once did anything happen. A stem and two leaves fell out of the wool of a second-lamb ewe. Yellow-cone, he saw, and nodded but took no other steps. Three hands of sheep later, he began urging them toward the gap in the plants. They all walked through. That . . . should not be. Sheep favored corner gates, not mid-field gates. He tucked the fact away, stowed the rods, and led the small flock back to the family.
The animals followed willingly, maybe even eagerly. Still, he walked with slow steps and stopped at each burn and grassy verge. Lambs could not be hurried. The sheep’s spirits would remember the injury and disrespect long after their minds forgot. None of what had driven them away remained on the animals so they did not need to be smudged or rolled before returning to the flock. The lambs nursed, or slept, at each stop as their dams chewed or grazed. One or two sipped from the burns. Again, all was as it should be except . . . They acted more as dogs than sheep. The oldest ewe gave him a sideways look from her blue-white eye. Had she seen their lifter? Or did something else cling to the sheep?
The sun had crossed the roof-peak of the sky and passed the point midway between noon and nightfall by the time he and the sheep returned to the family. One lamb had become foot sore. At the next stop, Harrel had found hoof-wort growing beside the stream. He’d picked it and had tucked springs between each lamb’s hoofs, and three of the ewes and hoggets as well. The foot-sore lamb he now carried over his shoulder, her dam following close behind.
He smelled the smoke of the fire. Brute barked once. Harrel stopped and waited. Alfie and Ian came to the edge of the road. “Good dog,” Ian said. Harrel walked on, leading the sheep to one of the fields. Connal lifted the gate and the others helped coax the animals in. Connal lowered the newly-woven willow panel into place.
“Mist trace or just old one?” Harrel asked.
A shrug. “Eluvie’s not sure, and the old one broke as I moved it. Bottom split. Had a new one almost ready.” Another shrug. Connal guarded his word-hoard closely. “Find aught?”
“Mist trace on the field edge, none on the sheep. The graze-field burn is white-headed. I dipped the rods before testing the sheep.” After a bit he added, “No claim on the graze-field. Claim on one down-way of it. I didn’t check for family sign.”
Connal shrugged again. The others would refuse to claim and move to land touched by the old way. Here, the road bent so only a small patch of scrub-wood touched the old way. Harrel alone gathered fuel from the waste-wood, but took nothing more save from the rowen if it sank roots into the edge of the old way. Nothing ill could tolerate rowen, and it never drew ill into itself.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved