Before the War of Wizards, the Red Raven Inn was a legend on the banks of the Elsa. You could hear the skirling of the violins along the water for miles. Now, the strings were silent, and even the voices were hushed of a night, as everyone listened for thunder.
Tonight, they heard it.
"Shhh!" Old Cahill admonished the patrons, and holds up his cane. As one, the grizzled old farmers and river boatmen closed their mouths and look up at the rafters. Barmaids paused, faces ashen.
Unmistakably, there it was, the distant peal of thunder. Of course, Cahill had been the first to hear. He always was.
Cahill frowned. "Girls. Set to. Close the windows. Men, help me outside if you don't have your own farms to see to."
Most of the patrons left in a hurry to their own farmsteads to set things ready. A couple remained. Soon, windows were locked tight, horses were stabled, every possible thing not nailed down was pulled inside and piled in the center of the room. The fire was doused. Every lantern and candle snuffed.
Then, they waited. In darkness and silence. The thunder grew nearer. Lightning flashed outside. They could see it through the tiny spaces in between the slats in the window boards.
Inga, the youngest of the maids, buried her face in old Mary's shoulder as the latter stroked her hair. "Shhh, shhh," Mary comforted her. "It will be gone, soon."
Old Cahill paced like a trapped wolf, swinging his stick impatiently, as if he could drive off the storm just with the force of his fear.
Then they all heard it. A voice outside. A child.
They all pretended to ignore it, but it kept on. It was a voice they knew.
"Knute," Inga sobbed, looking up from Mary's shoulder. "That's Knute! You know how he likes to sneak out of a night and search for lightning bugs!"
"That damned, slow-witted..." Cahill grumbled, gripping his cane.
Inga looked at him desperately. "We...we have to go out and get him! Be...before the storm..."
Cahill growled, waving his cane in her direction. "Like hell we will, foolish child! You know what happens when the red storms come. It's far too late to set foot outside now!" Cahill's face was drenched in sweat. Everyone remembered what happened to Cahill's wife Muriel during such a storm, not two summers hence, when he had seen the red lightning up close. The village had buried an empty coffin in the churchyard, one among many before they put an end to the sad practice.
Mary held Inga tighter. "Cahill, maybe it isn't too late. The thunder isn't so loud yet. And Knute is frantic, listen to him! That boy is all Karla has left!"
Cahill clenched his jaw and listened at the barred windows, his hands on the shutters as if he expected them to burst inward. What Mary said was true. Of all the wives in the village, Karla had sacrificed the most to the War. Four sons, a husband, and her left leg.
"Dammit, woman. Don't speak to me of sacrifice!" he hissed.
Mary looked around the room at the men. Farmhands and stable boys without lands of their own. They looked away, scared or cowed by Cahill's silence. She spat on the floor. "Then I will go."
She gently extracted herself from Inga and stood.
Cahill protested, but Mary was adamant. Inga wanted to go with her, but Mary would not allow it. "I'll move faster without you, dear child. But I'll have to bring Knute back here. It's too far to Karla's door, judging by how close he sounds."
Just then, a great flash of red lightning cut through the slats in the windows, and a crash of thunder followed. Fat raindrops began smacking against the roof and the sides of the inn. Knute began to shriek.
"Too close! I forbid you to leave!" Cahill growled.
Mary stood in his face. "And I warned you what would happen if you used that word with me again. Now move."
She stared. Slowly, Cahill shook his head and shifted aside. Mary grabbed her oiled cloak from the hook, swung it about her shoulders and slid the deadbolts free. The sound of hard rain and the smell of oily iron filled the room.
Cahill's hand gingerly rose, and sought Mary's. "Hurry. Come back."
Mary looked into his clouded, white eyes. She squeezed, then pulled her hood over her, ducked, and ran, pausing only to grab a length of rope from the horse-trough outside. She pounded thick, acrid water with every footfall. She tried to ignore the stumps where she knew there had been old trees her entire life. She passed a pile of rubble that had once been a well from which she'd drawn water as a girl.
From the edge of her vision, she saw one. It dropped from the sullen clouds, lithe and serpentine, silhouetted against a flash of red lightning. Mary looked away just as it snaked around a stray woodcart, and the terrible noise suggested heavy lumber being crushed and wadded like a fist-full of dried hay.
She found Knute. He bawled and whimpered at the bottom of the drainage ditch in the center of the village, now rapidly filling with the oily runoff from the storm. Mary knew right where to find him. She didn't have to look at the old oak tree nearby to know what had happened. It was his favorite. He climbed it like a raccoon. Climbing was the one thing he was good at. Climbing down was not.
"Knute! Knute! It's Ol' Mary from the Raven come to get you! I'll be a minute, dear!" She had no idea if Knute heard her over the thunder or his own cries, but she didn't pause to see. She lashed the rope around the old tree, knotted it, then tied the other end around her waist, using it to lower herself into the ditch, her feet slipping in the mud and the rocks. She found Knute with one arm lodged between two thick roots jutting out into the ditch from the old oak, and the other wrapped around a drenched kitten that was probably white in dry weather. Both were crying. Mary looked down. Knute's ankle was broken at an ugly angle, the skin was already dark.
Mary braced her feet as well as she could against the mud. Water was rushing against her, cold and oily, rising. "Knute, lad! I'm gonna grab hold of you, and try to climb up! Reach out around my waist now, hear?" But he didn't, over his wailing and the rain. She reached out for him, but he only shreiked, drawing his knee with the hurt foot up against him, threatening to tumble down into the water.
Mary grit her teeth. "Dammit, lad!" Knute, love him, was a simple boy, and too scared and too in pain now to listen to her.
She saw more of them, above. Reaching down, long and black against the red lightning. Searching. Mary had to get back to the inn with the boy. It was only a matter of time before they were caught by one of them.
Mary sucked in her breath. She would have to do it, then. She hadn't in years, not since the War. I'm older now, she thought. What will it do to me?
Couldn't think about it now. She planted her feet, gripped the rope, and held her free hand out toward Knute's broken ankle, palm up, and concentrated. She began to tremble. Her teeth began to vibrate, to hurt. Her tongue began to burn, her eyes to water with hot tears. She became a furnace.
Meanwhile, Knute had stopped shrieking. Instead, he stared, open-mouthed. His ankle erupted in white smoke that ignored the driving rain and heavy wind. The smoke covered his foot, and underneath were strange sounds, as if bones were clicking together. But Knute only watched in rapt fascination, as if he felt nothing. Slowly, as the clicking continued, the white smoke turned to red, then from red to black.
Then the black smoke began to roil and spin away from Knute's foot and gather into Mary's palm, like a small storm in her hand. It left behind an ankle in perfect condition. Knute wiggled his foot, wide-eyed, glancing back and forth from it to the smoke, as the kitten continued to wail and the storm tossed everything around them.
Then, without ceremony, Mary opened her mouth and shoved the swirling ball of smoke into it, keeping her hand in place, swallowing again and again until every bit was gone. It went down like wet fur and hot coals. She choked twice, but she kept from vomiting.
Knute stared, wide-eyed, but they had no time. "Knute! Grab onto me!" Mary yelled, her voice now ragged and gravelly. To her relief, he wrapped one arm around her, his other still tight around the kitten. "Hold on now, I'll have to climb!"
But then, something wrenched them both against the mud of the ditch. Mary looked up. To her horror, one of them, the thickest one she had ever seen, had coiled around the trunk of the old oak.
She had never seen one up close before. Mary had expected, what? Scales? Like a snake? But no, it was more like a great, black, pulsing earthworm. Ancient limbs cracked and snapped from the tree like twigs as it wound around the trunk and tightened. One of the limbs broke in half, hanging dangerously over Mary and Knute's heads, swinging in the wind, lit up red time and again in between stretches of darkness.
Mary cradled Knute's head against her shoulder, and tried to climb again, only to realize she was rising, and not by any effort of her own, just as she and Knute were covered by a rain of mud amidst a terrible roar of torn earth. The oak was being ripped from the ground, and she was still tied to it!
"There they are, Cahill!" It was Inga's voice, shouting over the din. "In the old ditch! Good gods, they're tied to the-"
"I can hear it, girl!" Cahill yelled back, "Take the axe! Can you reach them?"
"You idiots!" Mary screamed from under the rain of mud as she and Knute slowly rose, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Saving you, you mule! Inga! Can you reach them? Inga!"
"I..I don't...I can't."
"It's okay, girl, it's okay! Are they still touching the ground?"
"Quickly, girl! Are they still touching the ground?"
"Yes! They're still in the ditch!"
Mary gasped. "You old fool! You haven't done that in-"
"COVER THE BOY'S EARS, MARY! You too, Inga! NOW."
The thunder was tremendous, the roar of the wind and the rain was like fury, but it was nothing compared to what happened when old Cahill knelt and put his palm to the ground, the veins in his temples pulsing. It was like a bell tolling in Hell. It swept through the earth, into both Knute and Mary, chattering their teeth and vibrating their bones. They couldn't move.
The thing dragging the tree from the ground paused, just a moment, as the tone traveled across the ground and up the roots and the trunk of the tree. It was like time stood still.
Old Caleb smiled, and snatched the axe from an astonished Inga, who stood like a statue. Caleb picked his way carefully toward the tree, and as confidently as though he could see it as clear as a summer's day, he brought the axe home on the rope and severed it in one swing.
Then the tone came back to him.
Cahill fell to the ground, hard. "Cahill!" Inga screamed, and ran toward him. The tree rose toward the clouds.
"Inga!" Cahill growled, coughing up blood, "Get...get Mary and the boy. Help them."
Inga nodded, and ran to the ditch, where Mary was struggling to drag herself out of the ditch, with near-hysterical Knute clinging to her back for dear life.
When they had cleared the ditch, Inga scolded Knute. "I told you never to go off by yourself in these storms again! Your mother needs you, foolish boy!"
He held the kitten out to her. It was sopping wet and mewling.
"I got him for you. It was up the tree. You...you were sad when your old cat went to sleep and didn't wake up, so I got him for you."
Inga stared in disbelief. "Knute..."
Mary raised her eyes to the sky and yelled, "Can we have this moment inside, children!" She shoved both of them back towards Cahill, shaking her head. They ran towards the old man.
Not fast enough.
Mary wondered then, and would wonder for years afterward, if he had known. If he had suspected that it was doing the kinds of things she and Cahill and others of their kind did - like his wife did - that attracted the red storms and the things within them, like bloodhounds.
Perhaps he counted on it. Perhaps that's why he sent Inga as far from him as possible at that last moment. Perhaps he wanted to be with Muriel again. Perhaps he was just tired of living in darkness.
Mary thought of all these things at once as she wrapped her arms around Inga and Knute so they didn't have to watch the thing take old Cahill up into the storm.
They didn't bury an empty coffin next to Muriel's. It was no longer the custom. Instead, Inga had the idea of planting two oak saplings near the spot where the old one once stood.
Mary got the village together, and they agreed to a lookout. A storm-watch, in shifts, for as long as the red storms lasted. They put up a watch-tower, the first of several. It didn't take much discussion on what would be the signal. Soon, a big, brass bell hung in the first tower, with no shortage of volunteers to fill shifts to ring it if red lightning was sighted on the horizon.
Cahill's Watch was born.
Mary thought of the name.