Beacons in the Dark by Henry Sanders-Wright

Eldon calls for aid!

The Malarpar Beacon burns bright on the highest point of the northern horizon. It’s a great pyre atop a squat tower, carrying in its flames a single message, seen from the first beacon on Eldon’s citadel to the east. A pillar of thick black smoke rises from Malarpar, holding up the sky, and even though it’s mid-afternoon, the beacon shines brilliant against the dark clouds gathering beyond it.

I watch it for a while, first with interest and soon with contempt, using it as an excuse to rest my sore back from tilling the frozen field and clearing the recent snow.

A lit beacon means only one thing: evil is on the march.

Again.

How many lives will this war against the darkness claim? The last time Malarpar was burning, I had less pains and more help in the field. It has haunted my evenings by the fire.

It had been early spring. Bram slammed his hoe into the ground, damp from recent showers, making me look up from my own work. “Not again,” he muttered.

I saw Malarpar burning then, although I wasn’t filled with contempt for it. The beacon reminded me of my younger years, and I remember yearning for a sword instead of a hoe. “Evil never rests for long, although I’d appreciate it if it took a bit longer.”

Bram huffed. “It shan’t take long for the signal to reach the Foam Coast. In a few days, the whole continent will be marching east.”

I nodded. Malarpar was only the second in the series of signal towers that run across the continent, covering thousands of leagues. Eldon’s message spreads fast, as long as the Stewards of the Beacons do their job right.

“Do you think the elves and dwarves will come? With all the border skirmishes lately, can they trust each other to fight side by side?” I asked him. Frostmere tried to stay out of external politics, but rumor and gossip traveled the valley at a surprising rate and all whispers said the Jarl was considering putting his weight behind our neighbors, the dwarves of Stonetop.

Bram smiled slightly, knowingly. “Those beacons are one of the few things men, dwarves, and elves share in common. It’s probably the only thing they agree on, too. When the beacons are lit, they’ll all put their differences aside.”

I took his word for it. It was a mystery to me, but Bram understood people better than most, always expecting the best in them. It was probably why he made a good counterweight to my less friendly temperament.

Farther down the field, Guth and Aldig were meant to be working, but were too busy talking. Strangers often mistook them for brothers. Guth laughed at something Aldig said. My heart fluttered at the sound and it does again now. Bram watched them with me, neither of us saying anything. They hadn’t noticed the beacon yet and part of me wanted it to stay like that forever. Does any parent want their child to grow up?

“I wish I could come with you,” I said, wiping my brow with a rag from my pocket.

Bram gave me a sympathetic nod. “There’s no-one else I’d rather have watch my back. But the Jarl will want you here in case of… the worst. If anyone can protect the valley, it’s you.”

I knew he was right, but I didn’t like it. I should have screamed and shouted. My place should have been on the front lines, riding Maerwyn head-first into an army of Corrupted Men, protecting my husband and son. Not waiting in the valley as a reserve.

The Horstead Beacon, the third signal sat high on the hill above our farm, suddenly flared to life, bringing Eldon’s call to Frostmere. Bram’s shoulders slumped. With Horstead lit, every farmer and son in the valley would take swords down from above their hearths. With Horstead lit, the Jarl of Coldhill would summon the Frostmere Riders and send their winged cavalry across the sky. With Horstead lit, the message would continue to the Kerrotona Beacon further west. We hoped for more time, but we knew there was no delaying it.

“I suppose we better get moving. We’ll need to sharpen the swords and oil the leathers before we leave,” said Bram. He put one of his plate-sized hands on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Are you okay to finish up here?”

We shared a look that I never wanted to end. There was no worry in his eyes, although I knew he didn’t want to go. 

“Go save the world.”

Words I regret.

He straightened, bolstered to his full height. “Boys!”

It’s been ten years since that day. No matter how many times I replay it, I can’t change it.

I turn away from Malarpar, casting my eyes down as the sorrow rises in me like the beacon’s black smoke, making my eyes sting. I feel my lips quiver and purse them together, making them as hard as the frigid earth beneath me.

This better be the last time. I’ve seen too many wars in my lifetime; I’m too tired to be afraid of dark powers and ancient evils. Will I even live long enough to see this one out? The relentless shaking in my hands tells me I don’t have the years left. Too much time lost to fighting and farming.

I suppose I’ll go easier knowing whether they vanquish the evil, if only because it will mean Corrupted Men won’t overrun the farm and trample my cabbage patch. I won’t leave much behind, but I don’t want all this tilling ruined by the brain-dead pawns of a sorcerer with a god complex and too much time on his hands.

My eyes cross the vast Frostmere valley, where herds of gargan sheep graze in the plains, to Horstead above the farm.

But the top of Horstead’s short tower is dark.

“What’s Aldig playing at?” I mutter to a husband and son who haven’t tilled the field with me in a decade.

He must be out. To be Steward of the Horstead Beacon is the greatest honor the Jarl could have bestowed on a young man of his low-born status. It’s an honor that comes with a single, simple responsibility: when Malarpar burns, light the beacon. And yet, Aldig still dawdles and wanders, unprepared for his one task. He better not have been coming down the hill to see me.

Leagues away, great men and women, heroes of our time, are preparing for a battle against evil to decide the fate of the known world, hoping the continent rallies to their call. How disappointed they will be when no-one comes because Aldig needed to ‘stretch his legs,’ as he tells me every time he appears at my gate. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll be scrabbling back to Horstead right now.

My long silver hair has become loose and I re-braid it into a tight tail. Adjusting my grip on the hoe, I bend down again, eyes to the stiff soil beneath my boots.

War is for greater people than me and I want no part of it—it’s already taken all I have.

But as the afternoon crawls by, I keep glancing up at Horstead. I try to stop myself looking, to stop myself wondering, but my eyes find their own way to it every few minutes.

By the time I stand up straight again, my work finished, the sun has disappeared beyond the crest of the valley and the night is rushing in. The wind is picking up, blowing motes of fresh snow over my freshly cleared patches. Malarpar burns like a star now, brighter than before in the rising night. I glance up to Horstead, but the hilltop is dark. That’s not good—the Jarl will have Aldig’s head if he learns Horstead’s beacon went unlit for this long.

“It’s not my business,” I say to the cabbages, fixing my eyes on them.

Maybe it will teach Aldig some responsibility. I’ll never know how Guth was friends with that boy.

With a frown and a grumble, I cross the field to the house, leaning against the hoe for support as I pick my way between the cabbages. I check on Maerwyn in the stable, adding water to her trough, hay to her bag, and throwing several gargan wool blankets over her back and wings. She feels the cold in her joints as badly as I do. I run my calloused hands along her dappled flank, laying my head on her neck as we share each other’s warmth for a few seconds.

“Just a pair of old girls, aren’t we?”

Maerwyn stamps a hoof in response.

Before I go into the house, I look up at Horstead again. The outline of the old tower is barely visible against the star-filled sky. No matter where Aldig was this afternoon, he should have seen Malarpar’s beacon by now.  Does he really want to dishonor his family name like this? Guth had always known how to keep him in line. If only he had come back with Aldig.

Or, even, instead of him.

I steady myself against the wall of the house, feeling my knees weaken under the weight of Guth’s memory. I push the grief away, wishing I could bury it in the cabbage patch. It leaves room for the anxiety of the unlit beacon to grow, wondering why it’s still dark. I’ve known Aldig longer than I like. He may be a slacker, but he’s no deserter.

I hear Bram’s warm voice in the back of my head: Go to him, Folchild.

No. If Horstead doesn’t light, word will eventually come from Malarpar. They’ll still have their war—with or without my intervention. But if I go to Aldig, he’ll never leave me alone. I’d be opening the door to a reminder I don’t need. All I want is my peace.

I shut the door firmly behind me, sliding the lock in place to add to my finality, although it doesn’t completely shut it from my mind. I build a fire in the stone hearth first, the warm glow filling the room, acting as a ward against the howling wind that surrounds the house. I set the water to boil and pull my armchair a little closer to the fire, plumping the straw-filled cushion within an inch of its life. All I can think about is sitting down and resting my feet.

The shutters and the door rattle in their frames. Goosebumps prickle my skin despite standing in front of the fire. I fetch an extra blanket from Guth’s bedroom. It’s been empty for ten years but that doesn’t stop me from bringing the blanket to my nose and breathing deeply, hoping for a hint of him. It smells stale and dusty. Any trace of Guth was lost a long time ago.

I sigh as I sink into the chair, pulling the blanket over my legs and up to my chin. My eyes quickly find the depths of the flames, watching them dance and crackle, remembering days when more than the hearth kept me company.

The fire spits. What if that was Guth up there?

Then everything would be right with the world and the beacon would have been lit hours ago. They may have been friends, but Guth and Aldig were day and night. I’m reminded of that every time Aldig stands at the gate, hoping to be let in.

It has been a month since his last visit. He appeared by my little blue gate as he always does—suddenly and silently, waiting for an invitation in. “H-hello Folchild, how are your cabbages?”

The sound of his voice made me jump, interrupting the rhythm of my tilling. I hadn’t been expecting him—I never do. His fair hair had grown long and greasy and he had tied it into a ponytail. His face had become leaner since I’d seen him last, the fat of childhood finally melted away. I glanced at him and, for a moment, I thought Guth had finally come home.

I didn’t answer, hoping he would go away.

“I brought your favorite.” He pulled out a bottle from beneath his gray cloak. From the corner of my eye, I recognized the bright label of honeyed whiskey. “I thought we could have a drink and talk about Bram and Guth.”

“Go away, Aldig.”

His hands hovered on the gate. “Folchild, please… I just want to talk.”

“I don’t. I used all my old Rider reputation with the Jarl to find a place for you after you returned.” I pointed up to Horstead as if the winds would whisk him away. I had seen out my final promise to his mother and raised him to adulthood—I owed him, or her, nothing.

I noticed then that he had lost more than his puppy weight—his cheeks were hollow and his cloak hung off him like a garden post. It struck me as odd. They send him more than enough supplies to keep him well-fed.

But I pushed it from my mind. It wasn’t my business.

“Yes, but—”

“But nothing!” Pounding the hoe into the earth and unsettling a cabbage, I turned the full power of a glare on him that had once made men cower in battle. “I can’t have you here. I don’t want you here. This isn’t your home anymore, understand? Not unless you bring me back my Guth.”

His face twisted and dropped, as if I had stabbed the hoe into him. “I wish I could, every night. I lay there, wishing he hadn’t saved me, wishing he had survived that battle instead.”

I didn’t respond. I heard the voice of Bram then, reminding me of his lessons on tact. The scrape of the hoe in the earth filled the silence between us. At some point, Aldig left, leaving the honeyed whiskey on the stone wall.

He hasn’t been back since.

Folchild…

My fingers tap against the worn arm of my chair. I can almost see Bram sitting opposite me, filling his chair, eyebrows raised, waiting expectantly for me to make the right decision. I loved and hated that face. It was the same face he’d made when I said I’d think about his marriage proposal. For three days, all I saw was those raised eyebrows until I said yes. He’d never hesitated to use it again in the following forty-three years.

This isn’t the same though. Aldig’s not my responsibility anymore. I owe him nothing.

Do it for Guth.

“You old bastard,” I mutter as I see Bram’s expectant eyebrows lower into a grin I would punch off of any other man.

I take the pot of water from the hook and pour it onto the logs, killing the fire with a hiss.

Aldig better have a fine excuse ready when I arrive.

Constantly a second thought away from changing my mind, I strip off my dirty field overalls and pull on my warm, gray traveling dress from the bottom of the trunk at the foot of the bed. I find my cloak on the back of the front door and pull it over my shoulders, fastening it with a simple silver brooch, emblazoned with an ‘F.’ Bram gave it to me for our twentieth wedding anniversary. If I have to go up to Horstead, he’s coming with me.

Maerwyn blows at me when I enter the stable.

“I’m not happy about it either.”

She’s a stubborn old girl, ruffling her wings at me as I fasten the saddle and turning her head away as I try to fit the bridle. After a few harsh words between us she sees my way and stands still. I lead her out of the stable and the wind buffets us, snow sticking to our hides. If we stood there long enough, we’d be buried. Maerwyn folds her speckled gray wings tight against her flanks—neither of us is under any illusion that she’s going to fly. Even if the elements weren’t trying to carry us all the way to Fogmere, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen her soar. There was a time when we flew with the Frostmere Riders. The sky seemed limitless then.

Flying is harder when you have no reason to beat your wings.

Before I mount her, I light a torch and it casts long shadows over my cabbage patches. On the wall by the gate, the bottle of honeyed whiskey still sits in the same place Aldig left it.

Something glints dully on the edge of the darkness. It’s the hatchet I use for cutting firewood, buried into its accompanying stump. Bram once used it to fell trees, boasting he could cut one down in three strokes. I never saw him do it. I tug it free from the stump and pull the handle through my belt. The head presses into my side, bolstering me with his strength, reminding me that I carry another piece of him with me.

I mount Maerwyn. Despite my creaky joints, it’s a smooth, practiced movement and, for the briefest of moments, I forget my age.

I click my tongue. “Come on.”

Maerwyn moves, sluggish at first, but once she gets moving she finds her pace. It’s not quite a trot, but it’s faster than a walk. The fact that she’s moving at all is a miracle. We pass behind the house and through the back gate. When I look back, the farm is already lost to the darkness.

We’re barely beyond the back gate when the incline sharpens. Maerwyn slows down but doesn’t stop, and her hooves never slip, despite the uneven and frozen earth. The trees surround us quickly and it feels like riding through a silent crowd, watching us climb, waiting for something to happen. At the edge of the torchlight, some almost look human. My eyes want to see Bram in the thick oaks and Guth in the slender pines, but my heart knows they would never be as quiet, never as still. If they’re anywhere, they’re in the wind, roaring between the trees. Free spirits.

At the thought of them, the wound deep in my chest trembles, threatening to tear my heart in two. I turn my eyes to the fresh snow ahead of Maerwyn, glad that she can’t see me wiping away the tears. For a while, all I can hear is the soft crunch of the snow beneath Maerwyn’s hooves, the roaring whisper of the leaves above us, and the whistle of the breeze.

Beneath the blizzard, something deeper howls. I sit up, questioning whether I heard right, hoping it was just the storm. Maerwyn’s ears prick up and I know there is definitely something more.

Between the gasps of the wind, I hear the baying answer that sends a ripple of goosebumps along my arms and my heart doubling.

Grim Dogs.

They shouldn’t be here. There’s nothing for them in the hills—usually they hunt in the plains, fighting the shepherds for their herds of gargan sheep. There’s nothing big enough to satisfy their appetites in these woods, only foxes, rabbits, and other little forest folk.

And Maerwyn. And me.

And Aldig.

Maerwyn snickers and quivers beneath me. It’s impossible to tell how far away they are, but it’s closer than I’d like. I twist in the saddle, searching the dark walls that press against our bubble of torchlight. From the corner of my eye, I see twin stars hanging low between the trees. In a blink, they’re gone. Had they really been there?

I don’t remember when it happened, but now the haft of the hatchet is in my hand with the reins. I’m squeezing the wood harder than I thought I had in me. I long for a sword I relinquished long ago.

I dig my heels into Maerwyn. She shakes her head but picks up the pace.

As I stare into the swirling black ahead, more dark thoughts slither and curl around my mind. If Grim Dogs are here, then Corrupted Men may not be far behind. After all, they serve the same evil in the East, sharpened and driven by his will, united by a goal greater than dinner. I don’t want to believe that they’ve come so far into protected lands unchallenged. The idea makes my stomach curl into curds.

Aldig has no hope of repelling them alone.

I almost force Maerwyn into a gallop she can’t handle, sending jolts of pain up through my body. I hope I’m not too late.

Damn it all! This war should still be in Eldon, with the great men and women of the age. Not here. What’s the point of all those legendary heroes? If they had done their jobs right years ago, I could be by my fire right now with my boys.

We almost collide with one of Horstead’s crumbling walls. Maerwyn snorts as if to deflect the blame onto me for our close call. I mutter a swear at her and she stamps a hoof at me, sensing my tone.

Around us, the forest has fallen away to a small clearing, Horstead standing at the center, barely taller than the surrounding trees. I look up at the squat stone tower, only able to see the rough brickwork in front of me by the glow of my torch. I sense the rest of it looming above me beyond my flickering light. All the windows are black.

Quivering as the cold finds its way beneath my cloak, I slip from the saddle and skirt the base of the tower, a shaky hand holding the torch in front of me. Armed only with a firewood hatchet, I’m unlikely to survive any Grim Dog or Corrupted Man attack, but I’d rather face it armed. I glance to the trees, scared of what I’ll see watching me, but there’s nothing there.

It doesn’t ease me because it doesn’t mean I’m alone. I hurry on.

I reach a small door in the stonework. It’s ajar.

“Aldig?” I call out. There are no marks on the door, no sign of forced entry. I push the door with the head of the axe and the wind does the rest of the work, blowing it open wide with a sharp creak. The orange light of the torch trickles across the snowbank that’s built in the doorway and over the small, surprisingly tidy, living space. The bed is made. The hearth is clean. If I was to run a finger over any of the furniture, I doubt it would come away dusty. His time in the army has stayed with him—everything is uniform and organized.

My torchlight reaches the back of the room, the only spot out of place: a toppled chair and Aldig, hanging from the ceiling, swaying gently in the wind.

The blizzard screams through the tower, drowning out my own wailing horror.

Once the howling wind dies, my voice falters with it, leaving a void in me.

Seeking an answer, I search the room frantically for whatever evil influence caused this. I tear open drawers, chests, and even his bed. But there’s nothing: no mythical amulet, or corrupting hex, or even a drop of alcohol.

That’s when I realize my hand in this. The emptiness inside me quickly fills with a nauseating guilt, making my head spin and my skin sweat. I wasn’t searching for an answer, but absolution. I may as well have tied the rope myself.

I remember again his last visit and see him stood at my gate, the dark rings making his eyes bulge and his slumped shoulders carrying a weight I couldn’t see. A weight that I refused to see.

No evil sorcerer did this, only a human mind, twisted by guilt and loneliness. And me—the stupid, old woman who shunned and blamed him simply for surviving.

A single piece of folded parchment sits on the table, weighed down by an unlit candle.

I’m sorry Guth, but I am no great man.

Tears chill my cheeks. The old wound deep in my chest has opened further than before, like it’s been ripped anew. I’m surprised by its intensity—it’s like losing Bram and Guth again, yet this time it’s not softened by helplessness.

I couldn’t do anything about their deaths—the war took them, on a battlefield, leagues away from Frostmere and the farm.

I could have stopped this. Aldig’s death sits with me and the bottle of honeyed whiskey by my closed gate.

“I’m sorry, Aldig. This isn’t what Guth would have wanted, from either of us.”

I can’t leave him hanging there. It takes time to cut Aldig down, but eventually I manage to ease him down onto the floor. I don’t look at his face—he looks too much like Guth. My heart can only take so much.

I don’t know where I find the strength, but I manage to lay him out on his small bed. Once the storm dies, I’ll take him down to the farm and bury him where I would have buried Guth and Bram—under the blossom tree. I’ll even open the honeyed whiskey.

I find a clean sheet from a cupboard and drape it over his body. As I do, I catch a glimpse of his face. He looks almost asleep. Peaceful. I hope Guth is waiting for him in the beyond.

Turning my attention to the small stone steps built into the tower’s wall, I follow them up to the flat-turreted top, holding the torch above me. The beacon’s pyre is stacked as tall as me and twice as wide. The wood is freshly cut—only a day or two old.

Aldig was not a slacker.

There’s a pot of oil hanging from a hook, and I pour it over the wood. I bring the torch to the pyre but my hand hesitates, holding the flames inches from it. As soon as it is lit, Frostmere will ride for war—how many more sons, husbands, and friends will we lose this time? The war is inevitable, but maybe I can spare them a few more days of peace, a few more days together.

I see the fresh wood again and I know that’s not what Bram, Guth, or Aldig would have wanted. A call for help can’t be ignored.

I shove my torch into the wood and the flames flare, sending Eldon’s message on.


Henry Sanders-Wright is a Project Manager by day and a writer by early morning/evening. In between making thrilling production timelines and sending edge-of-your-seat emails, Henry imagines (and eventually writes) characters, worlds and stories across all speculative genres. He hasn’t quite found his place yet, but he thinks he likes it that way.