The tailed star was an inconstant visitor to the world. It was a star that grew brighter then dimmer, as it came and went, over a variable period of years. Behind it trailed a flame, violet in hue, the color of periwinkle. Its approach brought the tides higher and higher, year by year, until it shone even in the day-lit sky, and the seas lapped the land.
In the gray remains of waning light, Goethred sought his path. Fern and sphagnum moss surrounded his feet and hid the shortcut trail through the tidal swamp. He had taken this way before, in daylight, but this autumn evening he had gotten a late start. Now, darkness settled over the crowded stands of tamarack and water ash, and Goethred had lost his way.
Silently he cursed Haithur, the axeman, for keeping him so long with his hospitality and his alcohol distilled from potatoes and juniper. In this country, when a man invited another man to drink in his home, refusal was considered rude. In this delicate situation, it might even have justified a violent response. Only when the last glass had been poured from the bottle was it meet to make one's excuses and depart politely. An offer by the host to share a meal or any sort of victual also gave the guest opportunity to take his leave kindly, but Haithur had made no such offer. Goethred now began to wonder if he hadn't done so mindfully to delay his journey home.
Goethred was a stout man and skilled at arms. He could defend himself well enough against any normal man, even the robust axeman. In the exercise of his profession, though, he preferred to avoid violent confrontation. To this end, he relied on his intuition to perceive the emotions and intentions of his interlocutor. By Goethred's reading, Haithur hadn't seemed to be particularly offended by his visit but seemed rather to accept it as a matter of course. Goethred did, however, detect a peculiar anxiety in him, perhaps even fear, unsuccessfully masked by Haithur's habitual surly facade. This demeanor Goethred thought strange, but he attributed it to an attempt by Haithur to dissimulate shame for his felony.
Haithur lived at his family's ancestral farmstead, built among the antique ruins of a long-forgotten town. The town had been settled by men on the narrow band of firm and arable land between the tidal swamp and a boreal wood further west. Before passing into their inevitable obscurity, the townsfolk had prospered from abundant harvests of the fields of rich earth and from game and timber of the wood.
These days, the western wood and the flora and fauna within it belonged to Oesden, the local lord of the land. Haithur, in service to Oesden, had the duty to cut a certain number of trees each year. Goethred acknowledged the axeman's reputation as an expert in choosing the most appropriate trees to cull from among the balsam fir and red spruce that grew in the wood.
Also in that wood grew a certain distorted tree, whose emerald sap dripped from man-made scars in its bark, like tears, and was bitter to taste. Thus it was called the sorrow tree. Its serum was collected by the lord's men and dried in shallow vats. They sold it for a dear price to apothecaries and magic-users, who ground it into fine powder for their esoteric purposes.
It was because of this tree that Goethred had called on Haithur. Felling just one sorrow tree was penalized under the law by a fine counted in gold coins. Haithur had cut several specimens during the year only to burn them in a pyre. For such flagrant disdain for the law and for the lord's property, the axeman risked death. Goethred was a lord's collector, and in this capacity he had exacted a certain sum, which he carried in a strap-sack over his shoulder. It was partial payment but the whole of Haithur's savings. Oesden was fair but stern, and so, his headsman would surely come to reprimand the axeman before the first snowfall. Goethred was confident that the villainy would not be repeated the next year.
This night a veil of clouds obscured the stars. There was no moon, nor was there ever, for this world's only regular satellite had fallen from the sky in times long past. The swamp in such darkness was a perilous place as it was full of pitfalls. Between frothy scum ponds and their muddy lagunes were open trenches of mire, called slough, and muck-filled pits camouflaged by moss, called muskeg. Goethred knew he must regain the shortcut trail and keep to it or risk stumbling into one or another of these traps.
While the cart track he had taken on his outbound journey passed around the swamp, leagues to the north, the shortcut traversed the swamp and the slender trough of sinking land that cut into it. The sinking land was called the Reach. It was a fen, devoid of trees, filled with black mud and the muck of years of decayed aquatic plants and the carcasses of fish and of mired animals.
The Reach was normally passable by a causeway that emerged from the fen. Tonight though, the tide was rising, and Goethred knew that it would rise higher than usual. For among the familiar stars now hid hind clouds, the tailed star grew brighter. The tailed star was an inconstant visitor to the world. It was a star that grew brighter then dimmer, as it came and went, over a variable period of years. Behind it trailed a flame, violet in hue, the color of periwinkle. Its approach brought the tides higher and higher, year by year, until it shone even in the day-lit sky, and the seas lapped the land.
Goethred was aware of a legend concerning the Reach, though as he was in such proximity to the place, he was reluctant to call it to memory. According to the legend – the events of which happened so long ago that none any more lent it credit, there was a creature that came up the river from the great north sea. Of its provenance beyond the sea, there was but speculation by sages and other such thinkers and crazed men. They proposed that it had come from another world much different from their own. So different was this alien world that a man could not comprehend it, even if he were to see it with his own eyes. For the eyes of men were used to seeing their own world with its particular physical laws that gave it its form and governed the behavior of the elements that made it up.
From the river the creature entered the tidal swamp and eventually came to lair in the Reach, not far from the town of men that still prospered in that hoary era. The creature bode beneath the surface of the brackish water, taking residence in sunken ruins of ancient structures. At low tides, when the tailed star was far distant and only seen as a point of light in the dark night sky, the creature kept still, sequestered in mud-filled chambers beneath the shallows. There, it slept and dreamt of its unimaginable home. Yet when came the high tides, when the tailed star was nighest upon the world and bright in the sky even at midday, the creature drew itself from its muck lair. With long tentacles, it crept into tidal pools near the town. It then stretched out its mind to subdue the minds of the town's inhabitants, for its own mind was not confined to the small existence to which were bound the minds of men. Its consciousness occupied expansive planes of reality, the extents of which neither the natural sciences nor the occult arts had yet fathomed – nor have ever.
The entire population of the town was thus enthralled. Their spirits subjugated, the townsfolk revered the creature and they sacrificed each other to their false god. They lured their neighbors into the swamp where they were coiled in wreathen tentacles and dragged down into the nether mud. The legend says that none survived, though Goethred found it difficult to believe a tale in which none survived to tell.
After a time, he discerned a way less crowded with ground cover and guessed it to be his path. He stepped upon it and followed it toward the east.
Then he heard the noise again – a muffled thump as a footfall against soft peat that made Goethred think of the axeman's jackboots. He knew by experience that a man's mind, perturbed by spirits, oft poorly judges his step across uneven terrain. He had thought to hear a similar noise earlier but had ignored its significance. This time he stopped to look back. He saw nothing but the tricks of luminescence played by vision in the absence of light. A lone whippoorwill called out to the void, and Goethred moved on through the night-shod swamp.
At infrequent intervals, a passing break in the clouds would let pass feeble starlight, revealing the somber ribbon of the path laid among woody underbrush. At these times, he could advance more quickly for a few strides before darkness would retake the swamp. Then he was obliged to slow his pace, feeling with each step for the loamy ground between black mires and muskeg pits.
He did not hear again the footfalls, but he did hear once the snapping of a twig and, later, the scratching of a branch against a passing body. These noises were to his rear, and he did not stop on those occasions but hastened on. Goethred reasoned that a halt would only bring whatever creature it was, man or beast, closer from behind and the tidewater higher on the trail ahead.
At length, the clouds began to disperse overhead, exposing the bright star with its periwinkle tail. By this glow, Goethred saw that he approached the causeway that crossed the Reach. The narrow embankment stretched out before him, far into a low, dark line of trees opposite. To either side, reflecting wan light, were fen and mire and sucking mud. He remarked with apprehension that tidewater encroached already upon the trail and, in places here and there, flowed over it in thin rivulets.
Then from ahead, came to his ears the woosh of a force pushing a wave through thick water. Some waterfowl or fish, he thought, perhaps. By the loudness of the sound, Goethred deduced that a smallish animal could have produced the wave close by. However, the absence of any nearby ripple in the water's reflection indicated a source further away and, therefore, a correspondingly larger creature.
Without further prompting, he hurried to cross the Reach. By the light of the tailed star, he bounded over shimmering rivulets and ran along the causeway. Before him the path dipped low, and there, it was flooded by moving water. He did not hesitate, as the tide would not soon subside. The distance he must wade was now but several paces. In a short time, though, the causeway would be completely submersed under a fluvial current.
With his first step into the water, he found footing, but with the second he found slick mud, and his boot sank sideways into it above the ankle. Goethred caught himself with one hand on a twisted branch protruding from the dark water. With the other hand, he still gripped the strap of the sack over his shoulder. From this vulnerable position, he glanced behind, expecting to see Haithur there, but saw no one.
Water rushed past his knees. The current seemed to him swifter than it had appeared on the surface, and Goethred realized the direness of his situation. He took an ungainly step forward, using the branch to steady himself. Unseen, the flooded path sloped downward, and the step brought him lower in the water. Algae streamed past his crotch. He pulled his trailing foot from the mud as he loosed his hold on the branch to advance another pace. At that moment, some passing thing beneath the surface brushed against one leg. He supposed it to be a submerged log, but he could not suppress a jolt of adrenaline that made his legs tremble with an urgent desire to be out of the water – out of reach of anything that might conceal itself beneath the shimmering reflection of starlight.
He lurched forward. Again, he felt something under the water. A chill pricked his spine and his eyes grew wide with terror, as he realized that this time, whatever it was, it moved against the current.
In a panic, Goethred lunged to cross the tidal flow. The path continued its descent and now left him without footing. Slumping sidelong up to his ear in the oncoming rush of water, he fought against the current and against the weight of the coins in the strap-sack. A dread sensation of helplessness swept over him as he struggled toward the shore. He felt a thick, smooth muscle slide across his chest. In an instant, a writhing limb wound around him and pulled him irresistibly lower into the water. His chin touched the surface and he tried to gasp for breath, but air was forced instead from his lungs. Abandoning the sack, his arms flailed, seeking a hold. They found only algae and slime. His eyes darted about, seeking unexpected deliverance. They found only the tailed star above the pale glimmer of the water's surface.
As the sun crept up along the horizon behind tamarack and water ash, Haithur dragged the strap-sack from the mud of the receding tide. He carried the money back to his ancestral farmstead, built among the antique ruins of the long-forgotten town. Another of Oesden's collectors would come to reclaim the fine, he hoped. If not, the lord's headsman would surely come to reprimand him before the first snowfall. Then next year, the lord of the land would send more of his men, for Haithur would cut more sorrow trees, and the tides would rise higher as the star with its periwinkle tail grew brighter in the day-lit sky.