Prologue

Thunder was brewing up the mountains that night. Before dawn, a storm would come, a storm as few had seen before. It would be very much like that which had been on the night when they had first arrived there, before the village was founded. It had been a long time ago, but Malna still remembered. She had been only a small child back then, but she was not likely to forget that night. She could hardly believe that it had been so long ago…

Malna was the oldest inhabitant of the village. She was not up to much now, and she knew she would die soon. The walls of her house whispered of her approaching end. She had no regrets, however. She had lived a long and fruitful life. Those that had no regrets had no reason to fear death.

Malna had not left her house for months. Still, some people did come to visit her. There was young Godric for instance – young by their standards, of course, for Malna was sure those from the outside would not have considered him young. He would sometimes come and bring her supplies. Some of her friends would visit her too, those that were still alive. But the mayor of the village had never crossed her threshold before.

When Malna had grown too old to manage the village, she had passed all her duties to the current mayor, who had agreed to take upon himself all of Malna's previous responsibilities and bother her no more with such affairs. The agreement had stood for a long while. Until now.

"You come on the wings of a storm, Eric," Malna greeted the mayor when the latter entered the house that night.

The mayor looked at the old woman who sat in her rocking chair beside the fireplace. Only the dying embers lit the room and the one thing that he could see clearly were Malna's bright eyes. They made him feel slightly put off.

"So you know why I am here then?" he asked, in answer to Malna's observation.

But Malna shook her head.

"I have removed myself from the doings of the village," she reminded the mayor. "And all I know is that there will be a storm tonight. You had better take a seat, Eric, but not before you helped yourself to some milk. You will be a long while here. I have no intention of sending my guest out once the storm breaks."

"But maybe I want to be in my own house when that happens," Eric protested, yet he hastened to carry out Malna's orders, nonetheless.

Soon afterwards, the two were sitting in their chairs beside the fireplace, each with a jug of warm milk while Eric was telling Malna of the reason that had brought him to her place in that cold night. The storm was about to begin. Lightning was already flashing in the sky, followed by loud peals of thunder. The wind was making the branches of the tree in front of Malna's house sway and crash against the window. Eric could not help casting an uneasy glance outside.

"This is a good house, although it is one of the oldest in the village," Malna hastened to reassure Eric, catching his look. "It will weather any storm."

Eric sighed and turned his attention back to the old woman. He seemed troubled and his face was drawn.

"You seem to think this village will always weather any storm, Malna," he remarked.

"And of course it will," Malna replied, fully convinced. "This place can withstand anything as long as we keep to our ways. You know that."

"As long as we keep to our ways," the mayor repeated. "But what will happen if we do not?"

Malna's eyes grew hard.

"What do you mean, if we do not?" she asked harshly. "We must not give up our ways. If we give up our ways, we will weaken the ties that we have forged so far. If these ties are weakened, then we will lose what we have become."

The mayor nodded gravely at this.

"I know this," he said. "Of course I know it. But what will happen when people will want to severe these ties? The outside world is tempting, Malna. To the young ones more than to us."

"Then the outside world must not be seen," Malna decided.

"But we cannot keep ourselves buried for ever," Eric argued. "We may be on the edge of the wilderness, but people still pass this place from time to time. What are we to do then? Deny them entrance? We cannot. It would draw attention to us. They would find it suspicious."

"Oh, I never said we should bar ourselves against visitors." Malna replied. "Only against those that want to become permanent guests here."

"These are the ones I am most afraid, too," Eric confessed. "And this brings us to what I have wanted to tell you. There is a family – they say they are fleeing from some trouble and have been on the road for a long time. They are rich nonetheless. They arrived here two weeks ago and have been staying at old Harald's house. They keep pestering Harald, saying they want the house. They say Harald is old now, and should move somewhere where he could be taken care of. They say they have fallen in love with his house."

Malna spat into the fire.

"They're lying!" she scoffed.

"I think they just do not know what that means to us, actually," Eric confessed wearily. "So what am I to do with them? How do I tell them to leave?"

Malna' s eyes glittered. Something in her look made Eric shiver. He was afraid of what was going to come next.

"Tell the family the house is theirs," Malna replied bluntly. "But tell Harald that he need not leave."

Malna's tone had been unconcerned and it had made Eric's blood freeze. He knew quite well what her words meant and he did not agree with her.

"Malna," he began hesitantly. "Malna, there has to be another way…"

But Malna interrupted him with a quick, angry movement of her arm.

"There is no other way," she insisted stubbornly. "No other save to abandon what we are. Now, I chose you as my successor because I thought you were a worthy man who wanted what was best for the village. Are you going to disappoint me now? Are you going to fail in protecting us and our own after less than a year of duty?"

The mayor sighed. He had been pleased with his function and honoured that Malna had thought him worthy of it. He had not known then what that would entail. He knew now. Now, a hard choice lay in front of him. Or maybe there was no choice at all. He bowed his head.

"All right, Malna," he said. "I will do as you say. If that is what is best for our village, then I will do it."

Chapter 1

150 years later

Frederick entered the building and headed straight to his office. He was late and he was bound to get a chewing up. Even the excuse that he had just returned the night before was not going to help him this time, not when he was virtually empty-handed. But that was not his fault. He had not been the one to set up such a ridiculous time limit that had practically given him no time to bond with the tribe. Primitive people did not like to be rushed. They wanted things done in their own time. They wanted to see strangers accepting them first before they decided to introduce said strangers into their own world. As a consequence, Frederick had not been allowed to film the dance at the Autumn Festival. He had managed to get other footage, it was true, but that was worth practically nothing since he had been sent there mostly to tape the festival. And he would have done just that, if only he had been given more time.

The door to his office opened and Bess the secretary put her head in. Bess always made Frederick feel uncomfortable. She had a disapproving look that reminded Frederick of the headmistress of an old-fashioned boarding school.

"The manager has asked me to tell you he wants to see you as soon as you come in," she announced briskly. "Which, I don't know whether you've noticed it or not, should have been fifteen minutes ago."

Frederick nodded distractedly.

"Tell him I'll be in his office as soon as I've checked my tapes," he asked Bess. "I'll bring him my recordings then, too."

"No, actually, his words were as soon as you came in," Bess repeated stubbornly. "At least go and let him know that you've got his message so he does not fire me as well."

With that, Bess closed the door, leaving Frederick slightly worried. He told himself that there was actually no reason for him to be fired. He worked well and his documentary show was watched and enjoyed by many. Yet he had learned long before that working with a TV channel entailed many things he had not thought of until then.

Frederick climbed to the manager's office and pushed the door open when he heard his boss' unmistakable voice bid him come in. Mr Pickford was the typical representation for his job. He ruled Outlands TV with a stubborn mentality and he seldom allowed himself to be gainsaid by others. He seemed at times whimsical, at other times practical and he always caught Frederick on the wrong foot. Frederick, meanwhile, could not decide whether Mr Pickford really appreciated him or whether he merely considered him an irritating but necessary tool for the success of Outlands TV.

"I've heard you were looking for me," Frederick began, not knowing how else to start the conversation.

"Oh yes," Pickford answered. "I was beginning to think you've vanished off the face of the earth or else that Bess must have forgotten to give you my message."

"Both impossible things," Frederick commented dryly.

"Quite so," Pickford agreed. "I have something for you, Frederick. Well, for your show, actually. See, frankly speaking, I kind of think we've struck gold, but I should not start counting my chickens before they are actually hatched."

"Could you be more specific, Sir?" Frederick interrupted politely.

It seemed that Pickford was in his whimsical mood. Frederick surreptitiously crossed his fingers under the table and he prayed that he would not be sent on some sensational wild goose chase that he considered beneath him.

"Have you heard of Karen Goldsmith?" Pickford asked in answer to Frederick's request.

Frederick frowned in concentration. After a few moments he was able to add a face to the name.

"Isn't she that reporter who works for the sordid little magazine?" he asked disinterestedly.

Pickford smiled at Frederick's way of putting things.

"That sordid little magazine happens to be the most well-read in town," he explained with an indulgent smile that gave Frederick an almost uncontrollable urge to commit murder. "And in the country too, I'd bet. You've met her too, haven't you? Ruthless little thing. She's been trying for some time to find some dirty little secret from Outlands TV to reveal to the scandalized public. She's been trying to reveal some of your secrets too, you should know. Requested and interview with you a while ago. But I told her you're just a boring intellectual and she decided you're not worth it."

Frederick tried to act as if that jibe had not bothered him. Actually, if he thought better of it, he had heard so many of the kind that he should have been immune by now.

"What does Ms Goldsmith have to do with me anyway?" Frederick asked instead.

"She's missing." Pickford replied promptly. "Been missing for two weeks by the looks of it. Told her friends she'd be taking some time off in the mountains, but she never came back."

"Climbing accident?" Frederick suggested, trying to keep out the lack of interest from his voice, since he still could not see what the incident had to do with him.

But Pickford shook his head.

"She wasn't the climbing type," he answered.

"Then maybe she eloped," Frederick said, shrugging his shoulders. "It happens, you know."

In answer to that, Pickford gave him another maddeningly indulgent look.

"Oh, come on, Frederick," he laughed. "Do you see her as the type that would elope? Or that would have someone eloping with her, for that matter?"

That was a good point, Frederick had to admit. Yet he could not find too many explanations and none that would have concerned him in any way.

"Well, maybe she was murdered then," he suggested, exasperated. "She definitely seemed the type for that. Always trying to find out the worst in people and show it to the world. Maybe she tried that with the wrong people and they decided this could not go on."

Pickford looked thoughtfully at Frederick. All traces of amusement seemed to have gone from his face to be replaced with a kind of excitement that seemed to Frederick positively vulgar under the circumstances.

"Quite so," he agreed with Frederick. "And I've done some digging in the past few days and I think I know by whom. It would make quite a story, Frederick. It would go really well into your show."

"What?" Frederick cried, rising from his chair and starting to pace like a nervous animal trapped in a cage. "Me? You want me to…? No! No, absolutely not. My show is educational. It shows isolated, primitive cultures and gives an insight into their lives. I am not going to turn it into some…some source of shocking entertainment for those in search of the sensational."

Pickford frowned in exasperation.

"Your show exists because people are in search of the sensational, Frederick," he told the younger man sternly. "Why do you think so many people watch your little snippets of life in primitive cultures? Are you deluded enough to think that it is out of a desire to understand or to know more? Of course not! It is because they wish to see someone leading a so blatantly different existence from their own, that it is virtually shocking."

"That is not the audience I aim at!" Frederick shouted, waving his hands.

"The majority are like this," Pickford pointed out. "And the majority is what I aim at."

Frederick was no longer pacing. His agitation had evaporated, leaving him almost listless. He stood in the middle of the room, looking at his boss entreatingly.

"Sir," he began, imploringly. "Sir, please understand this is not my job. I'm an anthropologist. I study groups of people. I don't go around searching for some murdered reporter."

"I don't need you to look for any reporter," Pickford snapped. "I need you for exactly what you do best: study groups of people. Now sit down and listen."

Frederick gaped.

"But you've just started telling me about Goldsmith and her disappearance and…what exactly do you want from me, Mr. Pickford?"

"I'll tell you as soon as you promise to listen to what I have to say and stop your self-righteous interruptions," Pickford replied. "Now, sit down before you fall down, Frederick."

Frederick sighed and let himself drop into the chair he had just vacated. He looked at his boss expectantly.

"Now," Pickford began, after a long pause in which he made sure he had Frederick's attention. "I've been making some research of my own. I have found that, in fact, Karen Goldsmith lied to her friends. She did not go on her trip out of pleasure. She went there undercover."

"Why?" Frederick could not stop himself from asking. "To find out what dirty little secrets squirrels have?"

Pickford laughed heartily at that.

"I wouldn't put it past her," he admitted. "But not this time, no. Tell me, have you heard of a village called Edensbridge?"

"Only vaguely," Frederick replied. "It's a small, isolated community without too many ties with the civilized world. They seem quite content to live in the mountains, ignoring the world around them."

"Exactly," Pickford nodded. "But see, there's this hotel chain and they think that are would draw a lot of tourists, if only they reformed it a bit and built a holiday place there. Apparently, the villagers are not too pleased with this and so far have not given their approval."

"That's not unusual," Frederick commented. "People aren't so keen on change as they like to believe, and some are less so than others. But I'm afraid you've lost me now, Sir. What does Edensbridge village have to do with Karen Goldsmith's disappearance?"

"It seems Goldsmith wanted to do a story about these people," Pickford told Frederick. "Emphasizing how poor they are, most likely, and how that tourist scheme would actually benefit them, if only they were not too ignorant to see it."

"Why would she do that?" Frederick demanded.

"Because it sells, my lad," Pickford replied promptly. "Also because her cousin happens to run that hotel chain."

"So the villagers found out who she really is and what she is actually doing at Edensbridge," Frederick concluded. "And then they do what? Kill her? Just for an article?"

Pickford had a sly look in his eyes.

"You tell me that," he said. "I want you to go there. Tell them you want to make a documentary about them. And while you're at it, find out what's really happening there."

"What's really happening?" Frederick repeated nonplussed.

Pickford nodded in confirmation.

"You hear all sorts of strange rumours about Edensbridge," he explained. "These people are surrounded by mystery. It's in the way they isolate themselves, in the way they want nothing whatsoever to do with us. It's also in their age."

"Oh, don't tell me," Frederick interrupted, rolling his eyes. "They're immortal."

"Well, I haven't heard that one," Pickford confessed. "But I did hear that they have quite long lives. Some say they even pass two hundred – oh, I know it's impossible, stop looking at me like that! Look into it though, won't you? It's also said they don't much look their age, either. From what I've heard, those of seventy look like their fifty and those of fifty could easily pass for late twenties."

"And what about those of late twenties?" Frederick inquired in a mock interested tone.

"There aren't any," Pickford replied promptly. "There haven't been any children for quite a while. And it seems children have always been few there."

"Well, that's not that unusual," Frederick said. "It's what often happens in isolated communities. They slowly dwindle until they die out. I could give you perfectly reasonable causes for that."

"I suppose you can give me perfectly reasonable causes for why they're said to live so long," Pickford said sarcastically. "Or why they're said not to look their age."

Pickford was really not interested in whatever logical explanations Frederick could come up with, but the other missed his boss' sarcasm and took it as an invitation to present his views:

"First of all," he began, "I'm pretty sure they don't live as long as you think they do. I have no doubt, though, that they really do have a longer lifespan and a more gradual aging process than, say, people who live in a city. But that's not due to any supernatural causes. They live isolated from the modern world, in the heart of nature, up in the mountains where there's fresh air and no pollution. They lead a healthy existence, spared from the stress that we have to face daily. Is it really that surprising that they live longer than us?"

Pickford, however, was not convinced. He waved off Frederick's speech, clearly showing that he did not believe it.

"Be that as it may," he insisted stubbornly, "I know something strange is going on in there. And all your carefully thought of explanations still do not account for them murdering a reporter."

Frederick gave an impatient shake of his head.

"But we do not even know that Karen Goldsmith really was murdered by them," he pointed out. "Or that she was murdered at all, for that matter. Do you have a body? No, you don't. Do you have any evidence whatsoever to support your theory? Of course you don't. All you have is a reporter you don't even know is missing and a morbid desire to find something shocking in everything."

Pickford leaned back in his chair.

"Am I to understand that you are not interested in making an episode about Edensbridge Village?"

"Oh, I haven't said that," Frederick denied quickly. "I will go there, but I will go only as what I am and present only what I see. And if what I see is not in agreement with your views or with those of the audience or of that blasted hotel chain, then I am sorry, but you should have found someone else. I'm not paid to expose supernatural activities or solve uncommitted murders."

Frederick got up. He made it as far as the door when Pickford called him back. Frederick stopped with his hand on the doorknob, trying to keep his exasperation from his face.

"There's one more thing," Pickford told him. "See, I wanted to save the best for last. These people, I don't know what they do with their dead, but they don't burry them. The village has no graveyard. Can you give me a reasonable explanation for that, Mr. Anthropology Graduate?"

Frederick had to admit to himself that he was intrigued. Perhaps Edensbridge village really was worth studying. Of course, he was not seeing what Pickford wanted to see, yet he found more fascination in his own theories than in his boss' far-fetched speculations.

"I can't right away," he told Pickford in answer to his ironic inquiry. "But I will as soon as I get there and check things out."