The use of Tuzyn's Reckoning for counting the years has spread to much of northwest Venårivè, but there remain many thinly settled areas where it is barely known. Indeed, in some places, the locals do not even regard the new year as starting on the vernal equinox. In the wilds of Huriséa and Quârphor, for example, the winter solstice marks the new year, for it is that dread night that lasts the longest, and thereafter the days grow longer.
Although only tribesmen may call the winter solstice the first day of the year, heeding the "Long Night" is a practice almost ubiquitous in the settled areas of Huriséa. Many fear it because it is a time when ghosts and other dead things may walk beneath the ebon skies of the solstice new moon.
One location where the Long Night is most seriously noted is Bélda, the triangle of land where the Tîrga and Denséy rivers come together. Along the banks of Denséy in this area lie several ancient barrows. The land around these barrows is unplowed, populated mostly by stray sheep and cattle.
Although some of the Bélda barrows may entomb ancient princes and petty kings who ruled bits of central Huriséa long before the rise of the city of Béldîra in the late fourth century TR, folklore indicates that two of the most prominent mark the sites of great battles. The larger, northmost of these seems connected with the arrival of the "blood slavering" Sôrki tribesmen in the region in about bt525. The older, smaller mound may relate to the westward passage of the Ivíni a few centuries earlier.
In any event, tales are often told in Bélda of the ghosts that sometimes emanate from these barrows. The strangest of these tells of fearsome events which occurred during the Long Night of the winter of tr523, when the Ivínian Hastin Turageldsen invaded Huriséa and was trying to force the surrender of Béldîra. Things were not going well for the invaders during the winter siege, and foragers repeatedly criss-crossed the area for supplies.
Came the day before the Long Night, and the settlement of Pôren (which means "mounds" in the Quârphic tongue), a few leagues north of Béldîra and situated along the Denséy, was "visited" by a raiding party of 20 men. Then little more than an unfortified inn amidst a smattering of dwellings, Pôren could put up little resistance, and its folk stood mutely by as the Ivínians filled a wagon with food and drink. The weather was very fair that day, and the roads dry. The foragers determined to return to their encampment on the north bank of the Tîrga, and the Pôreners were not unhappy to see them leave.
But as the sun subsided in the west, a fog arose along the Denséy and began to creep over the hills and fields of Bélda. The folk of Pôren knew full well what night it was and they retreated to their homes, where they huddled around their hearths and waited out the long hours of darkness. If they heard a howling in the night, well, they would say it was simply the wind.
As for the foragers, they never arrived at the Ivínian encampment that evening. Their absence was not immediately noted, but late the following morning, another foraging party found their wagon and the supplies sitting unattended along the road, about a league north of the Tîrga. Scouting about they began to find the missing party's horses scattered about the area, grazing.
Then in the woodlands to the west of the road, they found a man sitting quietly on the trunk of a fallen tree. He was recognized as having been one of the party gone foraging the previous morning. At first he seemed unharmed, but a trickle of blood from his mouth led to the discovery that his tongue was almost chewed through.
Although he was shivering from the cold, this lone forager seemed almost otherwise insensate, staring blankly ahead and not responding to any of their queries. But he wasn't blind nor deaf, as sudden movements and sharp sounds would cause him to flinch and sometimes whimper. All the searchers could determine was that he could easily be led back toward the road, but would resist any movement to the west.
It seemed to the searchers that the foraging party had been ambushed, but within hours, they found the rest of the missing men and it was apparent that something much stranger must have occurred. Halfway between the two greater barrow mounds, in a glade perhaps fifty yards across, the bodies of the lost foragers were scattered about. Most seemed to have died of battle injuries.
What confounded the searchers was that there was no evidence to suggest who had slain the foraging party. There were no tracks leading away from the glade, and the only tracks approaching seemed to be those of the dead men themselves. The only dropped weapons on the ground seemed to be those of the dead men. A few of the men looked as if they had fought and killed each other. Particularly disturbing was that several of the bodies were found half buried in churned-up ground, almost as if the ground had tried to swallow them up.
But the greatest mystification was one body which was not found near the others. Instead it was pinned to a tree at the edge of the glade, impaled on a broken branch some fifteen above the ground. It was almost as if the dead man had been thrown there by some great force.
The Ivínians never determined who, or what, had killed this party of men. Retribution might have taken against the folk of Pôren or one of the other villages on the road between that settlement and Béldîra, but there was never the slightest evidence found that any of the local folk knew what had happened, aside from a few blatting some fanciful story about the local ghosts.
It was not many months before the Ivínians were forced to break off their siege and retreat, and these strange deaths became a footnote in the history of their failed invasion. But two hundred years later, the folk of Bélda still remember the event and cite it as one of the strongest example of why one should never, ever go outdoors on the Long Night.
Second in an occasional series of myths, tavern tales and even some truths from the realms of northwest Lythia. Previous entries in the series include:
· The Centaurs of Lankor