Overmorrow (4)

4:

The sun was well down, and I wasn’t quite there.

I’d had to stop and rest, and eat, and water the horse, and push on.  Fortunately, he was an even tempered animal, and stout enough. I would have to remember to compensate the two stable boys that remained. They too, had no family, having been orphaned during the years of drought, turning up at the gate in baskets, squalling for all they were worth.

I was able to procure a wetnurse, who stayed on to mother them into fine young men, who mourned her passing bitterly, and were left with only the clerics and no prospects of brides.

Still, they’d be young enough to move on and make lives for themselves when this was over.

A breeze wafted over me, and I could smell the dank loam of the foul woods, laced through with more than a trace of carrion and stale blood.

My stomach flipped, and the horse refused to go any further, no matter my spurs.

I would have to walk into the Dark Wood on foot, approaching gods-knew-what across an open field.

I now what they meant of the fine line between bravery and stupidity.

Likely, I’d not see the animal again; whatever was out here would feast well, and how I got back, if I got out, was up to me.

Crepuscular colors inked the grass, and the edge of the forest was a wide, black, horizontal line that looked disturbingly like the maw of a great beast lurking in camouflage.

Xantara must know they’re after me. I have to tell her before she arrives.

I slipped the reins from the horse’s nose and took off the saddle, and put them at the trunk of a twisted tree.

“Farewell, good steed. I’m only sorry I can’t protect you, too. If you can, live.”

I loaded the crossbow, for all the good it would do in the dark, and left him behind in the gathering dark.

He snorted once, then I heard him run off.

The horse is smarter than you, Harkin.

 

******************

Approaching the tree line, I felt the weight of many eyes watching me.

Low growls and hissings tried to warn me away, and furtive movements that rustled the lower branches.

I’d come too far to turn back now though, and was grateful for the moonrise, though it was only a half moon. The first of the evening stars shone brightly, speckling the blackening sky with diamond brilliance.

Out of habit, I prayed to the woods gods I served, then announced to all concerned that I was coming in there whether they liked it or not, and began walking.

Nothing broke from the shadows, though the warnings got louder at first.

I persisted, and the noise receded, along with the eyes I could see, and they fell back from the edge of the tree line.

At that, I stopped. It was a coordinated move, as if that’s what they all did to lure in prey.

When I stopped, something charged at me.

I had seconds, and surprising myself, the bow was in my hand, and my finger was about to squeeze the trigger, when I realized that what was running at me was a child, yelling and waving its weaponless arms in the air, calling to me.

“MITRE! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, Mitre!”

It was a boy of about ten, and behind him, a girl of around the same.

I somehow managed not to skewer him with the arrow, but I didn’t lower the bow either.

“Stop there!”

They stopped.

“Who are you?”

They didn’t answer me, but asked me a question.

“Why did you come here?”

“I came to see…a Summoner.”

“No,” the boy said, “You don’t want to do that, Mitre.”

“I do, and I’ll pay you well to lead me.”

The little girl grinned at the word ‘pay,’ and tugged the boy’s sleeve.

“We need gold,” she said.

“You hush, Vilus. He doesn’t need to know that.”

“He didn’t need to know my name either, but you told him…Jirus.”

He slapped her so fast we both were amazed.

I thought she was going to cry, but she actually snarled as she jumped on him, and they rolled on the ground trading punches; I didn’t have much to do with things now, so I started walking toward the forest again.

That got their attention, and they broke apart and ran towards me, spitting at each other and giving dirty looks as they did so.

They stopped in front of me, breathless.

“I’ll make it plain for you: it’s night, I don’t know the way, I need protection, and you need gold. If you lead me into a trap, you get nothing, if I make it, I give you some gold, and you go on your way.

“I need a Summoner, tonight, so the sooner we get there, the sooner you can go back to your home and sleep, or fight, or kill each other. I don’t really care, but take me to a Summoner. Now!”

They jumped a bit, but I dared soften my look, though I wanted to; I would have lost the edge it had given me, and I’d get no respect afterwards.

“Let’s go.”

They walked in front of me.

“What’s your name, Mitre?” Vilus asked.

“How did you know I was a Mitre?”

“We’ve heard the stories,” Jirus said.

“It was bad when they came.” Vilus said.

“You’re talking about the Mitres?”

Vilus giggled. “Yes, Mitre. You still haven’t told me your name.”

“It’s Harkin.”

“That’s a crazy name,” she said.

Jirus stopped, and gave her an exasperated look, then he moved in close to me, tossing his hair from his eyes.

“The Mitres were the only ones that dared befriend us, but then they betrayed us. Anyway, you were about to be killed, but the animals saw us, and they didn’t come out.”

“Because it was us. We’re hunters. They’re afraid of us.” Vilus said with not a little pride.

Jirus started walking again, with Vilus by his side and me in his wake.

“We didn’t want to see you get eaten, so we saved you.” Vilus said.

“Thank you. Thank you both.”

“You’re welcome,” Jirus said. “The Summoner may not want to see you though, and we can’t make her.”

“Let me worry about that part. I’m glad you saved me.”

“Why do you need a Summoner?” Vilus asked.

“A friend of mine is in trouble, and I have to send her a message before she comes to visit tomorrow.”

“Is she your girrrlfriend?” she asked in singsong, and giggled. She seemed an abnormally giddy child to be in such a mire of darkness.

My innocence again?

“No, she’s just a friend.”

“If you saaayy so.” She smiled at me.

I chuckled, and Jirus looked at her and rolled his eyes, and then the moon was caught in the treetops, and the darkness was practically utter.

“Take my hand,” Vilus said, and slipped hers into mine.

A faint glow, pale blue, filled their eyes, and I felt a small thrill of fear.

Jirus must have known.

“Don’t worry, mitre. It’s how we see in the dark. We’ve a distance though, so save your words, and whatever you do, don’t let go of Vilus’ hand. If the connection is broken, we won’t be able to see you, but the animals still can. Understand?”

“I do.”

    I’m not ashamed to say I was just shy of crushing the bones of a child’s hand, but Vilus didn’t complain, and after awhile, I relaxed.

The night forest was beautiful, resonant with birdsong and rustlings, fireflies of different colors, night flowers that were surprisingly, pleasantly fragranced, and curious, pale, blind creatures came to examine if what was in their path was a mate, or food, or danger.

Thankfully, they decided the three of us were danger, and receded as fast as they appeared.

Vilus, watching one, took her eyes off the path and stumbled, and I clutched at her hand.

“Ouch!”

“I’m sorry, Vilus; I didn’t want you to fall.”

I rubbed it, so she wouldn’t reflexively pull away.

“Are you all right?”

“I guess,” she said, her voice sullen. I could tell she didn’t want to hold my hand anymore, but she was bound by Jirus’ words, so she couldn’t let go.

The moon flicked at the ground in dappled patches, but they were few and far between.

“Jirus?” I said.

“Not much further, Mitre; it’s just over that rise.”

A pearlescent white bird landed on a low branch in front of us, the colors swirling, as if someone put cream into a dark liquid.

“Never saw one like that before,” said Jirus.

The bird was looking right at me, and its staring made Vilus look up at me too, but she said nothing.

“Let’s go,” I said. “The night is wasting.”

Jirus trudged ahead of us, and Vilus, no longer my friend, in the way kids form friendships, sighed at having to hold my hand some more.

“I’ll make it up to you for hurting your hand, Vilus.”

“It’s all right, Mitre. I just want you to help your friend now. Besides, you can’t; you don’t live here, remember?” She smiled up at me again. Silly Mitre.

I had no answer for that, and in a few minutes, we topped the rise, and the pearlescent bird, the demon who was tracking me, flew over us and disappeared into a valley that, if possible, was even darker.

“You can let her hand go now.”

I did, and she shook it, getting the circulation back, and rubbed her left arm, which had been extended for some time as we walked.

She was tougher than she seemed at first. Like Xantara,

    “We’ll rest here awhile,” Jirus said, “but I’m getting hungry, which means Vilus is probably starving. We’ll walk with you a bit further, but we’ll point you where you need to go, and then we have to hunt.”

“All right.”

 

****************

 

They pointed me to rundown cottage that had smoke coming from the chimney.

“The Summoner lives there, but we’re going back.”

“You’ve done more than enough, Jirus.” I gave them each two pieces of gold, and their eyes lit up.

“We can guide you out, too,” Vilus offered, then smiled, “but then you have to hold Jirus’s hand.”

“How will I reach you?”

“We’ll know,” Jirus said. “The smoke will turn black. We’ll wait here for you when it does, Mitre Harkin.”

“Thank you.”

“I hope you’re in time.”

I turned and began walking toward the cottage.

“Me too,” I called, over my shoulder.

When I turned around after a few steps, they were gone, and the sense of danger began to creep back in, though in truth, I had never been out of it.

 

Overmorrow (3)

They would use Xantara’s affection for me to catch and kill her.

I was sweating, and were it not against the rules of the gods I served to do so, I would have sworn.

The silence that followed was even more nerve wracking; I dared not get up to retrieve the covers, and the light of my night candle seemed too tenuous and meager to venture. Still, sitting up against the headboard and cowering would serve no purpose either, so after some minutes, where nothing else seemed it was going to occur, and the desire to sleep had fled, I got up.

Snatching covers, then? A rather childish prank.

My pounding heart had begun throb once more, and my breathing evened out.

I ran a hand through my hair, more out of distraction than a need to straighten, and went over to my writing desk, where my brandy decanter sat, and poured myself a healthy dose.

I’ve never had them come to me before. They’re after me now, to get to her.

   Fool! You should’ve known it would only be a matter of time.

That meant the temple was now at risk too, though it was all but abandoned in patronage and congregants, all stragglers really, like me, who, for whatever reason, just didn’t want to let go.

I possessed no certain powers or gifts that they would need, and I realized the childish prank was a message: they could get to me, and when they did, they would use Xantara’s affection for me to catch and kill her.

I will return overmorrow. The day after tomorrow.

We were now into the wee hours of this day, which was all I had to try to send her a message, though I had no way of knowing how to do that.

Find a way.

There was only one way, and it was not an easy one. It was perilous in terrain as well as the occupants in it, but it would be my only chance.

In the hillsides surrounding the temple was a hidden path, stony and steep, that led into the dark woods, known for having little sun and nothing good inside. It was a pestilence on the land, but we’d defeated them long ago, and they remained there, also in dwindling number, being unable to prey any longer on the populace.

A victory the gods of light had won, at great cost.

But their ancient magic still pulsed in putrid waves throughout the woods, corrupting tree and creature and stream, and it seemed they too, were unwilling to let go.

In this, I was fortunate, for now I could seek a Summoner, one of those who were able to bridge the gap between worlds untold and unspeakable, and ours.

For the remainder of the night, I packed for my journey, though I had no idea how long it would take. I was a fair enough horseman, and handy with a crossbow (which for all I knew they could burn in my hands).

While packing, I shook, and mumbled, and drank brandy, but the overall factor was protecting Xantara. I told myself I was not, in fact, running away; if they killed me, I’d have no further part in things, and therefore would not be blamed for the inevitable, even if history branded me a coward.

Still, it felt like I was doing exactly that: no one would know if I left for good, and when they found out, they wouldn’t care.

They scared you off without even touching you.

I ignored that voice, and checked the crossbow to make sure everything was still working. I didn’t hunt often, but I used this when I did; I liked the feel of it, the swiftness of the arrow, the finality of the kill, and the silence of the falling prey, like Xantara’s falling demon.

It was almost graceful the way it fell, until it crashed.

I admit to being surprised the noise of the table breaking brought none of the other clerics running, but when I looked over, the table had been as it always was, so there was no reason to fear.

Leave now, Harkin. You’re conflicted, and trying to put it off with useless memories.

I began to leave, and the sound of footsteps behind followed me to the door.

I stopped and turned, and said to no one visible, “You can’t have her.”

And once again, the laughter, far more low and sinister, rumbling through the soles of my feet, filled the room.

I somehow managed to close the door with my hand shaking.       

 

*******************

The sun was just kissing the edge of the horizon awake when I finally set out.

I would reach the dark woods in the late afternoon; it was doubtful if the horse would go in, or if I could maneuver him if he did, so I’d already resolved to do the last leg of the journey on foot, which meant I would be in the Dark Wood at night.

Since no one had ever explored it to chart it, at least that I knew of, what happened in there at night was even more of a mystery than what happened during the day, but I’d also resolved to make it out alive, otherwise, this undertaking was purposeless.

It would be no mean feat if I survived, but would I be coherent.

I shook my head; too much speculation on the unknown. I’d have to trust myself, and this animal, to deal with whatever came up.

Leaving my thoughts, I gave over to admiring the view.

The hills were yet green, with a tint of autumn in the leaves now, and birdcalls sounded in cacophonous harmonies in the trees, as morning flocks of geese took wing to their feeding places.

The air was sharp, and clean, invigorating me, and I promised myself that if I did live, and remained sane, I would explore the surrounding countryside more frequently.

Duties were binding, and sometimes limiting, and kept one from doing things far more important.

The gods were served were benign, and I would go so far as to say, somewhat ineffective: gods of trees and stones and water, small gods of nature to micromanage what the bigger gods of planets and stars and weather had no time for, or didn’t want to be bothered with.

The people, for a time, seemed to be content with that, and the temple, while not wealthy, prospered well enough until the years of drought, and everything died but the trees of the Dark Wood.

Those brave enough to try and bring out the occupants to help us were never seen again, and the pyres of livestock and people burned high and long during those years.

Those who didn’t get sick, or try to wait things out, packed and left.

With their leaving, the temple, and its useless clerics and ineffective gods, fell from favor, and the offerings dried up along with the crops.

Some of the clerics, like me, who had no other family, simply waited for the end, and lived off the last of the stockpile we’d saved, and somehow made it through the winter.

That spring, the rains returned with a vengeance, and had remained more or less consistent, but the people who trickled in now to try their hand were mostly new farmers, so the land would take some time to turn fertile again for abundant crops; they could still eke meager ones while they worked together to establish themselves.

They were willing to do the hard work in order to claim the land their own, but few had come to the temple to replenish the congregation.

But we had another problem: with the Protectors gone, and the creeping demise of the temple, whose minor gods had now abandoned the faithless, the demons, sensing the absence of power to stop them, were returning.

And with only one Protector left, after they killed her, the clerics were the next line of defense they would take down.

I then recalled the dream of the young boy who’d beheaded Xantara, but whether it was dire prophecy, or just a nightmare, I couldn’t know.

I was on a fool’s mission, to save a world that didn’t deserve it, and to place the burden of that squarely on the shoulders of a young, untried girl who shouldn’t be alive, and trusted me.

You can’t have her, I’d said to the demon that dogged my steps, and even now, was certainly trailing me.

You can’t have her.

And now, I had to make that happen.

At any cost.