The goat bleated again, loud and insistent and this time the door to the cottage opened and a man stepped out into the daylight.
“I’m coming!” he called out, as he stepped gingerly across the grass to the small barn that housed the animals. He walked slowly, like an old man not far from his dotage but he wasn’t old. Not in the normal sense. His was an age born of endless fatigue and it showed in his pale blue eyes, his frequent heart-felt sighs and the lines on his face. His was the kind of face that comes from bearing an endless, relentless responsibility that knows nothing of respite.
He made his way into the barn and climbed in with the animal, reaching a stool and pail in with him and settling down to milk her.
“All that fuss hey?” he said soothingly. “I was barely awake when you started all that noise. You’ll wake the neighbours!” He chuckled to himself at his own joke.
He hummed to himself as he worked and the milking was soon finished. He worked mechanically as he set the pail aside and moved around to the side of the barn, opening the doorway to the fenced in paddock and letting the animals out to graze.
“Do you think I can have some breakfast myself now?” he asked the animals as he tossed a scattering of grain out for the chickens.
“Never a word of thanks either,” he tutted as he made his way back through the barn and out into the clearing. It was simply a hole in the forest. No visible paths led into the clearing or to the cottage. The paddock sat next to a well-worked square of land with vegetables growing in orderly rows.
He walked back to the cottage, and set about putting water on to boil over the iron woodstove. The cottage could have been mistaken for a ruin from the outside. It looked nothing more than a pile of branches and twigs that had somehow combined to form walls and a roof. Moss and ivy grew freely over the structure and it looked far more like a part of the forest than any form of dwelling.
Inside it was orderly, but plain. A simple cot to sleep upon and a serviceable kitchen made up much of the space, with only a chair by the small fireplace and a corner filled with a cluttered desk and bookshelf being the only home comforts.
He waited until the water began to boil before dumping in a double handful of oats and a splash of the goats’ milk from the pail. As he stirred the porridge slowly he stared out of the window, his eyes far away.
He could feel it again. The Wyrde fluttered in his mind like a minnow caught between two cupped palms in the shallows. His brow furrowed as he bore down and clenched around it, forcing it onwards.
His eyes drifted to the centre of the clearing and the great stone circle that sat there. He sighed and lifted the pot off the stove, leaving it on the burn-scarred table and making his way outside. The porridge would finish itself off now anyway.
A rust encrusted pole leant against the side of the cottage. It was not so much a pole as a staff, fashioned of iron but utterly unadorned, though it was so pitted with rust that it would have been impossible to tell. The rust had bubbled and formed nodules along the length of the staff. It resembled a long orange coloured candle which had been allowed to burn and collect rivulets of wax along its length.
Taking up the staff he began to shuffle around the clearing. A keen observer would have noted that his path took him along a clearly marked trail. Not so much one that had been cleared, but rather one that had been worn and marked out by the fall of endless footsteps.
The stones were irregular, showing no signs of tool-marks and forming the roughest of circles. They were not especially large, the largest being no higher than the man’s thighs. Despite the moss growing freely on the earth between them, none had taken hold on the stones themselves. Indeed a small bare circle surrounded each of them as if the plant-life feared to come too close to them.
The centre of the circle held a monolith roughly seven feet in height and deeply scored and stained on the sides with rust. Two more lay on their sides nearby, as if they had once formed some manner of structure but had long since toppled.
His shuffling steps covered the path surprisingly quickly, moving him in and out of the stones, forming a square here, a triangle there and then some nameless shape that nonetheless was clearly defined by the pattern of his steps. He tapped the staff sporadically as he stepped, but the taps seemed to have nothing to do with balance. He moved in silence, his eyes elsewhere. His dance mechanical and nothing he needed to pay attention to. In his mind the Wyrde calmed, ceased its writhing and then flowed on, maintaining.
As the resistance faded he allowed himself to relax, to think of other things, though a portion of his mind was always focused on the Wyrde. There should be others, he thought for the thousandth time. The task was possible with just one, but only just barely. Others had been with his master long ago, he could still vaguely remember them. There had been visitors arriving in a panic, men and women talking late into the night. He’d been just a boy then, it suddenly all seemed such a terribly long time ago.
He sighed as he shuffled the last length of the path, the final steps of the ritual, and then began again. His was the spider’s web against the hurricane, the hands holding back the tide. His was the task that would fail. He would be swept away eventually, that was a certainty. First though, he would hold, and perhaps just long enough for another to be sent as he had, and trained.