Bertha's tale focuses on the 99 inns along The Paths of the Dead and one of its travelers.
Gus and I leaned forward in anticipation. Bertha's eyes gleamed dark iron and cloudy nights. Her face lost the skepticism and impatience one usually saw when looking at my aunt. Instead, Bertha radiated wisdom and subtlety. She seemed to hold all of the secrets of the past and the future in her palms, pressed together in front of her.
She began her tale.
The man who used to be Haerviu trudged behind the others. The way was long, he heard the man before him say. But Haerviu didn't remember starting out on this path. He also didn't know why he was here, following behind a line of trudging people. It was dark, the way lit by a wan moon, not the harvest moon he remembered seeing last.
He stumbled as he tried to recall what he had last done before embarking on this journey. He remembered telling his wife he had to bring in the rest of the grain. He smelled rain. His wife Gael had begged him not to go out. It was already dark, and the dray horse was prone to be skittish at night.
He remembered hitching his horse to the wagon and setting out along the rows. And then… he only remembered hearing his horse whinny in fright.
And then he was here. Haerviu tugged on the tattered shirt of a man in front of him. "Do you know where we are going? Has his lordship called us to the castle?"
The man shook off his hand. Haerviu started to reach out again, thinking the man hadn't understood him, when a voice next to him, timid and gray said, "The Paths of the Dead, my good man. That's what we're traveling. The Ankou has collected us this very night."
Another spoke on his other side, "Here, it is always night."
Haerviu wanted to stop his beating heart. But he didn't feel his heart beating in his chest. He felt empty. And sad. He thought about his horse and his wife and his children. To be fair, he may not have thought of them in that particular order.
Gael had borne him ten children. Two of them he had buried before they reached their first year. Of the others, six remained to him. If it was true what the man had said, if he had died out there on his lonely field, then he only hoped his children would care for Gael. And for his horse. If she had spooked, then it was only her nature and not her fault. It was Haerviu's fault for not listening to his wife.
These thoughts kept him occupied for a time. Then he began to wonder just how long the Paths of the Dead were. He was already dead, so he couldn't die of boredom. But he would have liked to have a rest, to be able to come to terms with his lack of life. It seemed so unfair.
Could Ankou be bargained with? He'd return to give Death his due as soon as he made sure his wife was taken care of. That she had enough to get her through the winter. No reason she should suffer because of his foolishness.
The lights caught his attention. Before long, they came by a building. It looked like a traveler's inn, a
place where a man could put his feet up for a while and slake his thirst. Haerviu didn't think the Ankou would mind if he took a few minutes to do that on his way to whatever lay at the end of the Paths of the Dead.
He turned to go through the double doors leading into the wooden shack that, despite its shabbiness, looked inviting. A tug on his arm accompanied the gray voice, pleading, "Don't go in there, my good
Haerviu could see no one. Then he looked down. A small man, a true dwarf, strode beside him.
"Why shouldn't I go in there?" he asked. "You could come with me. We could share a pint and talk about things. I have so many questions. And then I want to find the way back. There must be a way."
"Aye, 'tis said there is one," said the dwarf. "But this is not the place to while away your time. Answers ye may have, but they will not bring ye any joy." The man spoke with a northern accent, brisk and colorful and no longer timid.
"Well, then, maybe we'll see each other farther down the road," Haerviu said.
"Look for me in the halfway house," the man said.
Haerviu nodded his farewells and went in.
The tavern was full, and there didn't seem to be any place for him to sit. A shout from the back drew his attention. He saw a chair that was free and sat at a table with a half a dozen people. Three of them played musical spoons on the wooden planked table. The thump of the metal on the wood was deafening. Two others nursed their mugs of cider.
Haerviu felt a sudden deep thirst and called for the barkeep. Soon he had his own mug of cider. Before he took a drink, he chanced a look at the man sitting next to him. His skin was pale and thinner than Gael's Sunday crepes. The man had eyes the color of a storm-laden sky, but they were as lifeless as the man looked.
The man laid a bony hand on Haerviu's arm. "It's a little early on the journey to be drinking," he said.
Haerviu shrugged him off. Hopelessness settled over him. It seeped from all the corners of the room, weighing them all down like anchor stones. Like gravestones. "What's it to you. We're all dead. Whether we come to the end of the path sooner or later doesn't matter anymore." Tired and sore, the feeling permeated his ghostly body like a day and a night pulling his horse Soizig through the mud.
He couldn't accept the way things had turned out, and it made him just want to drown his sorrows.
"Stay your hand and go further," the man said. He rose. "I'll come with you so you won't be alone. The way is dusty and long, I'll not lie to you about that. But with two of us it will go quicker. At least let's make it to the halfway house together. Then we can have a drink. If you don't do that, you'll never end your journey."
"And what about you? Why are you sitting here still, a'takin' your ease?"
It seemed to Haerviu that a light flickered in the back of those cavernous eyes. "I've been waiting for someone like you. Someone with the strength to seek the path of return."
Haerviu put down his mug, and the two of them left the place. They rejoined the Path, but now there were no other dead ones. Just the two of them. The man pointed ahead. "Ninety nine inns line the way. At the halfway house, there we may talk."
"Why not here? It will ease the time."
The man shook his head. "Not here. Not now. The Paths of the Dead are long and untrustworthy. Think hard on the ones you left behind, on the things you left behind. Then, when we've got there, I'll tell you a story."
So Haerviu did what the man told him, his hopelessness shed as soon as they left the first tavern. He realized it was the place itself that had worn him down. He drew pictures in his mind of his life and his family and let that be his candle, brighter than the pale moon that tracked them. Haerviu counted the inns and lodges they passed, each one different; each one looked better than the last. A deep urge threatened each time: unshoulder his load and go in. Just one drink…
"One sip of cider can't hurt a man, can it? Not when our cares are behind us?"
"Listen to you, now. You're speaking from the desperateness of the dead."
"Aye," Haerviu said.
Haerviu and his gray companion reached the halfway house. Haerviu had lost count a ways back and had no concept of how long it had taken them. He didn't know they were there until his traveling companion pointed to it.
"That's it," he said. "Now we can go in."
"How do you know it?" Haerviu asked.
"I've been here before," the man said, but said no more.
This place was twice as big as the first tavern, furnished with wide benches, and an upper level - maybe more than one. Haerviu couldn't see past the gloom of the first couple of rickety steps. He didn't feel the need to go upstairs.
Many people about the place. Haerviu thought they look faded, as if they might not be there at all - just shadows that clung to the walls. The two men sat with their backs to the wall and faced the front door.
"Keep your eye on the door," the man said. "It's better that way."
"If you say so," Haerviu said. Mugs of mead appeared in front of them.
This time, the man raised his to Haerviu. "Drink, my friend, and let me tell you of the great forest, the forest of ancient priests. The one that marks the entrance to the Lands Beyond, to the Ankou's domain. And no man who passes within can return, lest he is one of Ankou's chosen."
The barley mead tasted heavy, good after the long trudge, and Haerviu felt that he could listen to this man's tale, maybe forever. It did his heart good -- the heart that no longer beat within his breast.
Haerviu nodded to the man to continue.
"Somewhere deep in the Lands Beyond, though, there is a way back. It has been traveled before, but not by any man among the living. It's said that there are demons and dragons and trials that no man whose heart is heavy with wrongdoing can surpass. It is said that the great Mirdan is imprisoned there."
Haerviu finished his mug and called out for another. It appeared in front of him before he had finished shouting for it. "Mirdan and Nyneve?" Haerviu snorted. "An old folk's tale for the superstitious ones. Them that still believe in korrigans and banshees. Mirdan ran off with one of the Fae, he did. That's what they tell. She imprisoned him on an island where a man may never return."
The gray man seemed to grow less substantial with each draught from his stone mug. His skin showed patches of bone and his face became more sunken and drawn. His voice took on a rattle. "There is an island. On that island is a cave. It is the cave that leads back to life. I know because I've seen it."
Haerviu put down his mug. "Then why didn't you go back? Why are you here? And how did you travel backwards on the Paths of the Dead?"
The gray man nodded at each of Haerviu's questions, as if he'd been expecting them. "My name is Bran. I was one of the Ankou's chosen. I followed him once to the Lands Beyond. But I am not dead. At least not in the waking world. Here, I might as well be dead. But until I am dead, Ankou will not put me in his great forest. That is my punishment. One of my punishments and the least one."
"Bran? From the tales?"
The man shook his head. "Not that Bran. I am human. At least I was. I don't know what I am now. Cursed, I'd say." He lifted his mug with a weary arm. It shook with the effort. A new mug appeared in front of him, filled to the brim. Bran took a sip and sighed, closing his eyes briefly. "Only the dead may pass through the cave. Since I am not dead, I cannot pass." He opened a malevolent eye at Haerviu. "And I should by rights be trapped there forever. But I escaped to return here." He shook his head. "'Tis not a better place to wait out eternity. But at least it isn't as dry." He tipped his mug again.
"And what would you have of me? Will you take me to this place and show me how to get through?"
Bran shook his head. "I may not."
"But I may." The timid voice of the dwarf spoke up from the side of the table. "I can take him to the island. For I'm not a man."
Bran looked at the tiny man. He laughed, and the effort split the skin next to his mouth, showing a bit of the skull that lay just beneath. "So you may. But will you?"
The man nodded. "Try my luck. 'Tis my death."
"Right you have it," Bran said. And he began to tell them the way of things and how they were to get through Ankou's Forest and navigate the Lands Beyond. But what became of them, no one knows, for when you traverse the Lands Beyond, if you manage to come back to the waking world, you are sworn never to tell anyone, for good or for ill. And it's a pact made in blood with a curse that goes beyond death, as Bran will tell you. Because he's been there.
Bertha paused and seemed to come back from a long way off. She cleared her throat. Sebastian refilled her Armagnac. She nodded to him and drank down a portion of it. "Sorry, Basti. I didn't mean to pick such a long one. It just came out that way."
I poured myself more coffee and gestured with the cafetiére to Hagen. He nodded, and took a cup for himself. Heinrich had been so rapt with Bertha's story, he had to shake himself to bring himself back to the present.
When Sebastian came back to us, he poured Heinrich an Armagnac and one for himself. "Where did you get that tale, Berti?"
Bertha shook her head. "Just a minute." She put a hand on the piano, her eyes faraway again. Then she finished her Armagnac and walked to us, setting her glass on the table.
"Do you want to sit?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No, Schätzchen. I need to stand awhile. Otherwise, the tale don't settle right. Down here." She smiled at me and put her hand on her stomach. And then bent her head for a few moments, her palms together.
We waited, each of us wrapped in our thoughts. Heinrich's song about Mirdan had obviously inspired Bertha to tell this tale. I wondered if she had made it up on the spot. But it sounded too real for her to have invented it.
"I've seen the other side of that cave," I said.
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