The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.
On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.
This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.
And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.
"My Good Friends, I regret that I cannot travel with you any farther. I apologize, as well, for the nature of this farewell. Know that it could not be helped."
The passageway, though winding and circuitous, had indeed led the fugitives finally to the surface. Through a mechanism so old it had nearly failed to function, the passage opened into a concealed room near the center of the fortress atop Perdition Hill. There they had hidden for days on end, allowing their eyes to grow accustomed to the light, their lungs to free and open air. The contingent assigned to the fortress itself, primarily responsible for delivering supplies to those below, was quite small. Thus the fugitives availed themselves of the opportunity to arm and equip themselves for their coming journeys, and even to shed a bit of Redbreast blood in retribution for all they had suffered.
Now they had camped upon the edges of a windswept field of high grasses, in the shadow of a seemingly endless wood. For several days, they had said little to one another, so focused were they on speed and stealth. This morning, Leona and Diederic had awakened to the sun peeking shyly over the eastern horizon to find the Vistana missing and a sheet of parchment rolled into the knight's hauberk. They read it as one, Leona's eyes wide, Diederic's growing ever more narrow.
"Leona, I know that you would have me come with you to Birne, but I know too well how the Vistani are treated in the towns and villages of Malosia, particularly with Redbreasts rooting out witchcraft in every corner and under every rock. Diederic, I pray for your good fortune, but your quest is not mine. I must find my own people, must tell them where I have been and what I have learned. And you would be even less welcome among them than I would be in Birne.
"I have never offered the hand of friendship to a giorgio before. But I say now that none of us would have escaped without the aid of each other, and the months before our departure were made more tolerable by the presence of a companionable voice. I thank you, Leonera Talliers, and I call myself your friend. The luck and strength that saw us out—I wish you only more of it in the dark nights to come.
"And I thank you, Diederic de Wyndt. I offer you no such wishes for the future, for you and I shall meet again ere long.
"Take care, both.
Long moments passed as they digested the contents of the note like a meal gone sour, reading it over and again, seeking some hidden meaning that simply was not there.
"Why?" Leona finally asked, her voice plaintive. "Why would she go like that? Without so much as a farewell?"
"Because she knew." Diederic snatched the note from Leona's hands, crumpling it into a lump. "She knew that I would never have let her go alone, that I would follow her to the ends of the earth and beyond, no matter what she or her family had to say of it."
"I don't understand."
"She was my only chance!" He hurled the tiny ball out into the open plain, where it vanished into the windblown grass. "Her visions were my only path to Lambrecht! She's left me blind, God damn her!"
He stared unseeing into the distance, fists clenched. Part of him gave thought to tracking the Vistana down, but he knew in his heart that he lacked the woodscraft to find her, if she refused to be found.
Finally, reluctantly, he turned. "Very well, Leona. It seems I've nowhere else to go, for the nonce. Which way lies Birne?"
She gestured vaguely at the forest before them. "Have you any qualms about the woods, Sir Diederic?"
"Should I have?"
Leona could not help but smile. "This is the Forest of Cineris, so I imagine it depends on whether you believe what they say of it."
"Let us pretend, for a moment, that I am not from around here, and you can tell me what it is 'they' say."
"Things dwell within the Cineris," she told him, her voice grown hushed, "things that have never seen the unshaded light of the sun, things black and ever hungry. They feast upon game, yes, but also upon travelers, and they are never sated. Their hunger is the appetite of the woods themselves, and older than the soil on which they stand."
They stood in silence, save for the rustling of the leaves in the constant wind.
"'They' are very dramatic, aren't they?" Diederic asked. Leona grinned once more.
"They are indeed."
"And what do you say of the forest, then?"
Leona shrugged. "Birne and other villages have stood near the Cineris for generations. It can be dangerous, certainly, but if one knows which predators to watch for, and how to appease the Fair Folk who dwell within, it's safe enough."
Almost, almost he scoffed at the reference to the "Fair Folk," thinking of the many superstitions and rites he'd seen practiced across a dozen countries in his travels, offerings to fey creatures that never amounted to more than old wives' tales and mundane misfortune. Almost scoffed.
And then he thought of spectral gowns and haunted torture chambers, and chose to remain silent.
Instead he shifted the weight of the stolen hauberk, slung his axe once more over his shoulder, and followed Leona into the wood.
It should have been beauteous, this forest blooming to life in early spring. Seen with eyes newly freed from the hollows of the unforgiving earth, the youthful growths and colorful blossoms should have been wondrous, worthy of thanks, deserving of praise.
But to Diederic's weary gaze, impatient and frustrated, it all seemed askance, terribly wrong.
The blossoms were as gaping maws, spread wide to snatch the unwary passerby, excreted by soil redolent with the scent of decay. The trees, their roots knotted and protruding from the earth, looked like bestial claws reaching down from on high to grip the soil. They stood in uncanny, unnaturally ordered rows, and their swaying in the wind was the slow, belabored breathing of the forest itself. The green that burst through the rich soil or spread across the hardened wood was not, to him, the beautiful verdant shade of new growth but the sickly hue of brewing disease. His wrist ached to think of it, and the faintly yellow stain of seepage spread across the bandage Leona had wrapped tightly about his wound.
It was indeed a time of new growth, and much that sprouted should have stayed buried. He watched in silence as Leona made ready for camp that night. Watched as she scavenged dried lengths of wood from the forest floor, never pulling a single limb from any living tree. Watched as she mixed a bit of stew from leftover bits of trail rations, cooking it above the fire. Watched as she set aside a tiny portion of the meal in a saucer off on its own, beneath the shadow of a gnarled and twisted oak.
She insisted that they were safe, that her offering to the Fair Folk should avert whatever danger they might otherwise have faced, but still Diederic demanded that they alternate standing sentry, one at watch while the other slept. It made for long and tiring nights, but his soldier's instincts would allow nothing less. And so he stared into the darkened forest, jumping at every animal's call, at every branch wavering in the constant breeze, and waited for the wood to show its true colors.
Thus it went, night after night after night. Three times Leona treated his wrist with crushed herbs and fresh bandages, and three times the infection seeped through her careful ministrations. It seemed unwilling to spread beyond his wrist, for which Diederic was grateful, but equally unwilling to heal. The sharp, burning pain nagged at him day and night, and transformed even the easiest task into exhausting labor.
Twilight fell at the end of their fourth day in the Cineris. The embers of their fire danced and cracked, and seemed insufficient for holding the darkness at bay, as though even the shadows of the great old trees had taken on some semblance of weight. The crescent moon peeked shyly through the leafy canopy above, but few of the sporadic stars managed to find a similar path. The dull illumination of the fire was an island amid a sea of green and black.
Beyond the campsite, the breeze blew cold—a straggling breath of winter—and the evening mists began to rise.
Diederic watched Leona set aside another portion of their rapidly dwindling rations. Unable to keep silent any longer, he opened his mouth to speak, to berate her wasteful superstitions.
What emerged was not his voice.
No, that was not right. Diederic had not spoken at all. The call had come from some distance beyond, hidden in the darkness of the trees. Even as a second voice answered the first, Diederic dropped low, his axe held tight in a two-fisted grip. Leona shoveled fistfuls of dirt upon the flame, extinguishing it with an ugly hiss.
A third voice rang out, equally remote. The words were unrecognizable, mangled by the distance they had traveled and the tight spaces through which they had squeezed, but the tone was unmistakable. Diederic had given, and received, too many orders to fail to recognize them now.
And then he heard a sound far more frightening than the voices of soldiers. From deep in the forest, he heard the low, mournful cry of a hunting horn, and the answering baying call of hounds. Sweat broke out on Diederic's brow; the hair stood on his arms and neck.
"Is there a river?" he hissed, reaching out to drag Leona into a crouch beside him.
"A river! Or a stream, even a creek! Something that might aid us to elude the hounds!"
Leona shook her head fearfully, forgetting that in the darkened wood, Diederic could not see the gesture. "Small springs are common enough in the Cineris, but running streams are rare. If we were nearer to Birne, I could find you one, but here?"
"To Birne? Better than a dozen leagues!"
Snarling, Diederic rose to his feet, dragging Leona behind. "Then you had better pray that you and I stumble across one of those springs, else we're likely to have the dogs upon us before we've covered a pittance of that!"
Swiftly he draped an old blanket over his chain hauberk, in hopes of muffling the worst of the sounds, and they ran. Though their eyes were nigh useless, warning them only of the largest of trees mere instants before they would collide, they ran. Branches lashed out like claws, drawing blood from uncountable tiny wounds; roots and briars rose up to trip them, sending each or the other sprawling a dozen times over, and a dozen times again. Hair snagged on overhanging limbs; trousers snagged on jagged thorns; sticks and leaves rustled and cracked, betraying their every movement. With each step, the forest hindered them, and with each step, the barking of the hounds grew louder, the calling of the soldiers more distinct.
Leona's breath rasped loud and painful in her lungs. Her sides burned; her eyes stung beneath the constant flow of sweat and blood. She had long since lost sight of Diederic—though she followed his crashing progress through the trees—had lost sight of everything except the tiny circle of earth visible before her feet.
And then she took that step, that one last step, and knew she could not take another. A year and more of endless labor within Perdition Hill had toughened her up for many things, but long-distance running was simply not among them. With a gasp, she plunged forward to find herself face down in the loam. Her nose and lungs filled with the overwhelming aroma of honeysuckle.
She heard her pursuers in the distance, the shouting soldiers scrambling through the brush, the howling dogs tugging at their leather leashes, eager to run their prey to ground, to rend flesh beneath their clamping jaws. But immediately around her, at least, the wood was silent. No animals or insects called, for surely they all hid from this disruption of their world; absent, too, was any trace of her companion. Perhaps, she realized with a shiver, he had not even realized she had fallen behind.
For long moments she lay, struggling to catch her breath, before the tiny clearing around her abruptly lightened. Several footsteps and the crackling of a torch heralded the foes' arrival. Fighting panic, Leona flipped herself over, only to stare into the eyes of two grinning Inquisition soldiers.
"Well, well," the first began, standing over her with torch held high. "What have we—"
Leona lunged upward, her fist wrapped around the dagger she had acquired from the fortress on Perdition Hill, and drove the blade up under the man's hauberk, into the meat of his inner thigh. Hot blood washed over her arm, and the Redbreast collapsed with a gurgling scream, bleeding to death through severed arteries as she watched.
The torch tumbled to the earth but continued to burn as the second Redbreast stepped forward, his expression furious. Only paces away, he raised a sharply tapered sword. To Leona, it looked to be a better end than being dragged back to face imprisonment once more.
Branches cracked and mail clattered as Diederic rose from the underbrush, wraith-like, wrathful. The Redbreast spun and staggered as his hastily raised shield absorbed the impact of Diederic's axe. Held in two fists, the axe blow was meant to drive the man to his knees, but he recovered with the speed of a professional soldier and slowly circled the clearing, his eyes locked on Diederic over the edge of his shield.
For his part, Diederic only wished for a shield of his own. He had reluctantly chosen not to take one from the fallen soldiers back at the keep, knowing that the added weight would have rendered his infected wrist nigh useless. Now, in the face of a blade that danced to and fro with expert precision, he thought he might have willingly endured the pain.
Seconds passed as they circled, each taking the other's mettle in the feeble light, but Diederic knew he could not afford to wait—delay was the Redbreast's friend, not his own. He faked a stumble, turning his ankle inward and jolting to one side, in hopes of drawing his enemy out, but the soldier saw the feint for what it was ad refused to take the bait. So instead Diederic scooped up the torch as he steadied himself and hurled it at the Redbreast's head.
For a precious second, the soldier's shield slipped out of position as he raised it to protect his face. For just that second, he was blind to Diederic himself.
Even as the light flickered and threatened to go out, the knight sprinted across the intervening distance. Using his axe like a hook, he hauled the Redbreast's sword to one side, dragged the shield down with his other hand, and kneed the man hard in the groin. The breath rushed from the soldier's lungs with a high-pitched squeak. To his credit, he doubled over only marginally, already catching himself, trying to focus through the pain, to ready himself for the next attack.
Diederic offered him no chance to do so. His arm already extended, he brought the back of the axe in on the soldier's head with a resounding crash. The weapon lacked a butt-spike, and the Redbreast's helm was thick, but in conjunction with the blow below the belt, the impact was enough to stun him for several heartbeats.
Diederic flipped the blade around and struck once more. This time the edge punched through mail, through flesh, and through ribs with a loud crunch. It was followed by a second, louder sound as the force of the blow knocked the soldier's body back, hitting the trunk of a large tree.
Diederic followed in a flash, pinning the body to the trunk with a single outstretched hand. Suspending his axe from an overhanging branch, he swiftly and methodically searched the soldier. "Are you all right?" he asked, voice low, as he worked.
"I am." Leona appeared beside him, bloody dagger still clasped in her fist. "But we have to go, Diederic."
"In a moment." The knight, having found what he sought, lifted the Redbreast's waterskin from his belt and squeezed, emptying it onto the forest floor. Then, yanking the top open with his teeth, he held the leather beneath the soldier's fatal wound, catching what he could of the dripping blood.
"No! We—What in the Scions' names are you doing!"
"If the dogs are not exceptionally well trained, we might be able to lay a false scent trail, mislead them for a bit." Diederic shoved hard against the corpse, squeezing more blood from it like a ripe fruit.
"Diederic," Leona breathed, her voice as intense as he'd ever heard it, "we have to go now!"
Finally he turned, though he had not released the body. "Why? We should have a few moments before any of his companions find us here. We—"
"Diederic, please! You don't understand! The Redbreasts are hunting in the Cineris! That hunt"—and here she jabbed a finger at the corpse against the tree—"has now been blooded. And nobody has offered the Fair Folk their tribute! Nobody has asked their blessings on the hunt!
"We are all of us in danger, Diederic, and from foes far worse than the Inquisition Redbreasts! Please, we have to go!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Leona, enough! There's not going to—"
The sound that emerged from the forest around them was directionless. It came from everywhere and nowhere, somehow heavier, more real, than the world around them. It failed to echo in and among the trees.
It was the high, delighted giggling of a little girl.
On and on it came, barely allowing pause for breath. On and on, longer than even the most elated child could possibly have maintained it. And when it seemed the laughter must stop, that it could not possibly continue, it accelerated. It moved beyond the human, coming ever faster, rising ever higher, until it blurred from individual giggles to a single piercing whine.
A whine that became the lowing howl of some terrible hound, far older and more primal than the dogs of the Inquisition hunters.
A second howl rose then to join the first, and then a third, until the woodlands shook with the call of ancient predators, trembled with the need for blood.
The Fair Folk hunted the Forest of Cineris, and Diederic de Wyndt could no longer refuse to believe.
Again Diederic and Leona ran, ignoring the brush that tore at their skin, the bruises left as they careened off of tree branches, as in the distance the world went mad. The Inquisition hounds ceased their own calls, now whining and whimpering at the scent of death. Whooping and howling sounded on the breeze, in melodious voices no human had ever uttered. Hoofbeats thundered through the forest, through tight spaces where no horse could ever run.
And all throughout the Cineris, men began to die. Their screams echoed long into the night, becoming as much a part of the woods as the call of owls or the chittering of insects. Still Diederic and Leona ran, clasped hand in hand to ensure that neither would fall behind again. From right and left, the shadows of mounted warriors fell over them, armor-clad and wielding impossibly long spears, though there was never a light to cast such shadows. From ahead, the howl of something older than any wolf caused them to veer to one side, stumbling down an ivy-coated embankment until they tumbled to a stop amid a patch of clover.
They swiftly rolled once more to their feet, axe and dagger clutched to hand, as a trio of Redbreasts stumbled into the clearing from the opposite side, their faces masks of panic. Instantly the soldiers charged, their eyes focused on an enemy of whom they could make sense. Diederic met the first head on, parrying the man's sword with the haft of his axe, and then kicked—not at his own opponent, but to the side. His blow caught the second soldier by surprise, folding his leg at the knee. It was hardly a crippling strike, but it allowed Leona to step in past the reach of his sword and, with hands no less efficient for all that they shook, slit his throat with her dagger.
The third soldier took a single step, moving to support his brethren, only to cough a gurgling spray of blood as something took him from behind. It protruded through his chest, ugly and ungainly, and it was both the tip of a spear and the branch of an ancient oak, depending on the flickering of the single torch he held. For an endless breath the soldier stood, held upright by the weapon that still drank his life from his body; then he disappeared, hauled with inhuman speed back into the shadows of the forest.
The remaining Redbreast, stunned by the speed at which his companions had been dispatched, reacted just a hair too late to Diederic's sudden attack. Sword and axe danced in a waltz of steel and sparks. But the man could not keep up the pace, and the knight's heavy blade slipped through his defenses to send him, senseless, to the ground. And then, again, there was nothing to be done save run.
Leona, her breath again coming in ragged gasps, kept up for several moments until exhaustion forced her to stop. Her grip on Diederic's hand dragged him to a sudden halt too, and kept her from collapsing to her knees.
"Diederic," she gasped, sucking in great lungfuls of air, "there's... nowhere that we can... go. We would have to… escape the Cineris entirely to avoid… the Folk. Maybe not... even then."
"What would you have us do then, Leona? Lay down and wait for death?"
She coughed, once, and seemed at last to catch her breath. "If they blame us for this transgression, Diederic, we are dead. The Fair Folk will have their due."
A pair of torches flickered in the woods before Diederic thought to reply. Grimacing, he muttered to his companion, "I am not going to die here, at the hands of some damned forest faeries!" Then, before she could stop him, he raised his arms above his head and began to wave. "Here!" he called to the passing torches. "Over here!"
Before Leona's unbelieving eyes, another pair of Redbreasts, one leading a dejected, terrified hunting hound on a thick leather leash, stepped slowly into the clearing. Each held a torch in one hand, the hilt of a sword or the end of the leash in the other. For long heartbeats they glared at Diederic, and he back at them.
"Whatever we face here," the knight said finally, "is bigger than any conflict we may have with each other. We should stand together, at least until this new foe is defeated. What say you?"
The Redbreasts glanced at one another, then nodded as one. With an eye on Diederic, they stepped into the circle of trees. "I am Renard," the first offered stiffly. "My companion with the dog is Arsen."
"Diederic. And," he added, realizing that she would not do so of her own accord, "this is Leona."
She glared at him.
Further conversation, or perhaps recrimination, would have to wait. From the woods around them, a faint but steady glow pierced the darkness—the result of no torch or lantern. The trees around them stood in sharp silhouette, each seeming to stretch forth a clawed branch to grasp for anyone foolish enough to draw near. Shapes that cast bizarre and formless shadows, shapes that cast multiple shadows, shapes that cast no shadows at all, scurried back and forth within the light, dancing to the beat of war-drums only they could hear.
Immediately the Redbreasts tensed, turning their attention outward, staring with widened eyes. Diederic clenched his axe tight in both hands….
And promptly brought it down, with a sickening crunch, upon the neck of the soldier who had identified himself as Renard. Arsen, crying out in dismay, had barely let go the leash and dropped his hand to his sword hilt when he felt the bite of the knight's blade too, and then he felt no more at all. The hound, which had by this time had more than enough of it all, bounded whining into the forest.
Even as the bodies of the men he had betrayed gave up their life's blood, Diederic was already dragging them both to one side, draping them, one atop the other, over the heavy roots of the nearest tree, even as he'd seen Leona place her saucers of stew.
"We have not hunted your wood!" he called out, raising bloodstained hands to the unblinking glow. "We have shed the blood only of those who have come against us in violation of your forest! It was they who failed to offer you your due, not we. And I offer you these two men, allies slain by mine own hand, as your rightful tribute!"
A single howl arose from the shadowed forest, silencing all other sounds, from the beating of hooves to the screams of other dying Redbreasts. And then it also faded into silence.
In the constant light, a form appeared, crouched atop a fallen log that sprouted its own fungi and other new growth. It was human in shape, painfully thin, long of limb and lithe of motion. Skin the color of alabaster seemed, despite its pallor, to absorb the light rather than to reflect it, making the form difficult to see amid the shadows. Diederic could make out a flash of golden hair; green eyes of brilliant emerald at the outset, decaying to the hue of long-bruised flesh near the center; a face of perfect, inhuman beauty, to shame even the sculptures of classical Greece. Ruby lips parted to reveal the tearing fangs of the ravenous wolf, set in the shark's multiple rows.
She stared at him and he at her, and he felt in his soul that the thing watching him was the forest itself, made manifest. And finally, she smiled.
"We like you." Her voice was beautiful, melodious—a siren's call that plucked at his heart and threatened to draw him toward her, though he knew it would mean his death. "Remember us well, Diederic de Wyndt."
In the blink of an eye she was gone, the phantom light and the bodies of the fallen Redbreasts along with her.
Dazed, Diederic wandered over to Leona, who stood amid the circle of trees in open-mouthed shock. Slowly, he looked back over his shoulder at the spot where the fey woman had crouched, and then shook his head.
"I think," he said solemnly, "that perhaps they knew more about the Cineris Forest than we credited."
Unable to choose one of myriad emotions playing across her face, Leona spun on her heel and began the long march toward Birne.
Next Week: Chapter Eight...
Another week passed, slowly, frustratingly, as Diederic and Leona made their way through the thick over-growth. On several evenings, the giggling of little girls re-sounded in the distance among the trees. Once, Diederic awoke at midnight, convinced he had heard someone whispering, "Come! Come and dance with us!" while tugging upon his leg, only to find nobody present when he opened his eyes. But beyond these unnerving experiences, the Fair Folk of the forest seemed content to keep their distance, so long as the travelers put aside their tribute every night—a practice in which Diederic was no less devout, now, than was Leona herself.