Saturday, January 12, 2013


Along the dark, twisting path the thief moved with the swiftness of a shadow fleeing the light. Not a sound did he make, not a pebble did he disturb. His strides found each mark while moving him deftly over rocky nodes and blood-thirsty brambles. On switchbacks and bends he seemed to flit from point to point using shortcuts long forgotten. The bright glow of the nearly full moon only made the trip faster still. In these conditions even a novice wouldn’t need a lantern; for a master woodsman like himself it might as well have been a bright sunny day. This did little to dispel the sounds around him though.
Every now and then faint sounds could be heard from the left, from behind, then up above. These were things whose pace could eclipse his own. None dared approach though, they only sought first pickings should he leave remains. Even fell creatures had sense enough to hold back from a larger predator. Like jackals trailing lions they knew better than to approach too close to the ‘hunter’. And a hunter he was, but not this time, though had they come at him he would have swiftly ended them. Time was something he could not get anymore of, and anyone who took more time from him would feel his harsh and instant wrath.
The forest broke and he came to a gigantic field of wild oats, a vast flood plain seasonally watered by the river swelling with melting snows. He saw several large shapes just on the edge of his field of vision. He was surrounded, but they were only stalking. The feeling of menace seemed to be coming from elsewhere. Changing directions toward the river, the beasts kept their distance from the bank but maintained watch from the tree line.
‘So the waters hold secret dangers as well…’ he half muttered as he hazarded a glance at the inky black surface. Instantly he stopped, little puffs of dust swirling at his heels. The beasts half snarled as they tumbled into each other, desperate to stay back in the shadows. He stared motionless at the water, at the reflection of the moon and stars—and then watched as the reflected lights briefly vanish as strange shadows flew overhead. The hunter bats had caught up with him. Keeping his gaze down he pulled out a short paper-covered cylinder with a long, thin stick attached. Crouching slowly, he pushed one end of the stick into the soft river bank and lit the paper on fire. Quickly the tiny blaze flared then burned out only to erupt in an ear piercing shriek of sparks and golden flame a second later. Moments later the loud splash of disoriented bats flying into the river was quickly accompanied by the louder splashing of some river denizens late night snacking.
If the bats had already found him then the rest of his pursuers wouldn’t be too far behind. Pulling a small onyx figurine inlaid with peridot eyes he whispered, “To never dream again.” The eyes flared with green flames and black smoke issued forth, coalescing into a vaguely equine shape. Green flames licked at the places where its hooves stomped and the corners of its eyes and mouth. It stomped, snorted short green flares, and then turned to faced its summoner. Grabbing what would pass for a mane—had it not been the same shadow stuff the rest of the mount was made of—he swung himself onto the steed in one easy motion.
“Take the river, head south, we’ll make better time that way.” Rearing up on its haunches and giving a sepulchral cry, the mount moved with unearthly speed and grace, going from road to bank to river as if it were all solid stone. Little green fires marked their journey in a fleeting trail, gone moments after their birth. The surface stayed calm otherwise, not even the river monsters tempting the nightmare’s hooves. On the bank, a pack of scavengers sat and howled plaintively at the moon.
As he sat hunkered down against the nightmare’s back he wondered if he would make it in time. Not in time to avoid capture, but in time to deliver his package before there was no one to deliver it to.

He arrived at the castle just as the first hints of the coming dawn were painting the dark night sky. There were no sentries to stop him at the gate—there hadn’t been any sentries for a long time now—nor any signs of life elsewhere within the outer walls. Reaching the central keep he bounded off his mount in a swift motion giving a quick double clap as he landed. His mount lost all definition of form and quickly dissipated like steam from a kettle. Before the last of the black mist dispersed he had already placed the onyx figurine back within his satchel and taken three strides toward the keep entrance.
Deftly he navigated his way through the maze of lightless passageways as he worked his way upward to the room that housed his charge. There she lay, just as he had left her, motionless as the cold stone floor. A gnarled crone of a woman knelt beside her, waving esoteric holy symbols and offering forgotten litanies to longer forgotten gods. She looked up at his approach.
“So you have returned. Successful I hope?”
“I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said as he pulled forth a small vial.
The old woman’s eyes grew large as saucers, her jaw going slack and a small stream of drool falling from her lips.
“Give it here. I just want to look,” she said. The lustfulness of her gaze was unmistakable. He tucked it back within his tunic.
“So the stories are true after all? Who would have thought these few drops of this panacea could even tempt the most venerable of our matrons.”
He watched as the old woman shook her head, trying to regain her composure. When she looked at him again, her face returned to its normal wizened state.
“I cry your pardon m’lord,” she said with a slight bow “The power of the fairies blood is too much for these old eyes. I have seen too much, lived too long. The youthful innocence you possess has long left this battered frame of mine.”
“Nonsense Grand Matron, I am not immune to its powers either.” He made his way to the other side of the bed and gazed down upon his bride. “It is only my great love for her that overrides the foul temptations this elixir inspires. I would have gone to any lengths to claim it.”
“And so you have.” A worried expression crossed her face. “Speaking of which, what of your pursuers m’lord?”
“Even if they are at the gate it matters not, they must retreat once the sun comes up. I doubt they were able to keep pace though…” he drifted off, thinking of his flight from the temple.
“Do not underestimate the patrons of the Dark One, they have their own brand of craftiness.”
“Aye, and I have my own. Quickly now, the sun is almost up, what do we need to do?” He gazed down at his beloved, her face frozen in time. She looked as if she might wake at the slightest noise. She looked as if she were merely sleeping.
The curse laid upon her had been anything but a simple sleep spell. All the potions, salves, and unctions, none of them had caused any sort of response. All of the chants, sutras, and prayers, all had been countlessly repeated in vain. All of the charms, talismans, and fetishes, all called forth no response from her. The fairies’ blood was the absolute last hope, a panacea among panaceas.
“Pour it into her mouth, a few drops should suffice. After that we wait.”
He did as instructed, then waited. Time itself seemed to come to a halt.
Moments later the princess’ eyes fluttered awake.
“Where am I?” the young girl asked innocently.
“It’s a miracle!” the crone howled.
He looked at her and smiled softly, the tension draining away from his body. He knelt beside her, held her hand, and gently stroked her head.
“You’re home my beloved, you’re home.”
As recognition filled her mind so did color fill her face. She sat up and embraced him.
Despite her small frame he was impressed at the strength of her embrace. He brought his arms up, hesitated, then tenderly retuned her embrace. He had almost accepted a fate where this embrace would have never come to pass. From that he felt slight pangs of guilt and regret despite his current joy. Perhaps having sensed his inner turmoil she tightened her grasp.
“I know that I can always depend on you. As long as I have faith in you there should be no doubt in your heart.”
“Yes, your high—” but was suddenly pushed away.
“In court is one thing but this is my chamber and you are my dearest, my betrothed. Call me by my name like I have told you or I won’t forgive you this time.”
He smiled, finally assured that she had fully recovered. “Yes, Prin—”
“No titles either!”
“Yes, Clavelle.” She beamed at this and embraced him once more.
They may have stayed that way indefinitely had not a cough from the Grand Matron disrupted the lover’s spell. Clavelle turned to see the smiling, time-worn face she had spent so much time around.
“Grand Matron!” She released Chevren and threw her arms around the old woman. “How I’ve missed your lessons. It seems like it has been forever since we’ve…well, anything.”
“In a way it has dearie, in a way it has.”
Releasing her, Clavelle looked back at Chevren, then around the room. She suddenly realized they were the only three in the room. A sudden grumble in her stomach and the low rays in the window by her bed told her that it must be morning.
“Where is my page? Is he fetching breakfast? And what of Elsie, my chambermaid? Is she attending to the morning linens?” She caught a furtive glance between Chevren and the Matron. Both seemed to be hiding something. “Just how long have I been sleeping? It seemed like I was dreaming for days. I had all sorts of crazy, fantastic dreams. There was this giant city, far larger than any I have ever seen. It was round as a wheel and it towered above the ocean overlooking straight white cliffs all around. Then there was this dream of a frightful beast of a girl locked in some dungeon somewhere. I think I remember seeing her lashed and tortured. She would also stare at the moon silently, as if waiting for something. Then there was this bumpkin of a girl with the look of a scullery maid. She was attacked by an enormous bear. It was twice the height of a horse. It chased her up a tree but gave up after she vanished. The last dream I had was the worst of all. There was a boy, he reminded me of that one page. It was so vivid it still gives me shivers to think about it. Seeing him standing there over the corpse of a some man being held by a woman. Their faces looked similar so maybe they were family. All I really remember was the blood. There was so much of it, it seemed to be pouring from the old man’s chest.” She stopped as she noticed both members of her audience growing visibly paler. “Will someone please say something? And where is my breakfast? Chevren, answer me. Now.”
“Yes, m’la—”
“Yes, Clavelle.”
“Where is my page?”
“Six days ago had been Roger’s, your page, last day of service. He was coming of age and wanted me to take him as my squire so he might become a knight. The following morning his father was murdered, done in by an assassin’s blade. I know, I arrived shortly after the villain had fled.”
Clavelle stared at him puzzled, feeling that there was something missing from the story. Before she could ask Chevren continued with the story.

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