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.
"Well met, Father. May I speak with you a moment?"
Cerran placed the worn copy of the Septateuch upon the altar—a well loved copy, he might instead have called it—and stared across the dimly lit church. The stranger stood in the doorway, shaking off the worst of the rain. Already nervous around a man of such barely restrained violence, the priest could not help but note the pair of blades that hung about the knight's waist, and the chain hauberk he now wore beneath his cloak.
Making a show of covering the holy book with a protective cloth, Cerran moved around the altar, not so subtly placing it between him and the new arrival. "I'm not certain you should be here, friend," he said, his voice unsteady.
"People tell me that a lot around here." Diederic shook the last of the loose water from his cloak and slammed the church door shut behind him. The candelabras by the altar wavered, then burned high as the wet winds ceased. "It's enough to make a pilgrim feel unwelcome."
"Do not judge them harshly," Cerran implored, lighting a few extra candles so his hands might have something to do other than shake. "They're not bad folk here, or unfriendly. They just don't trust outsiders. Fate has not been kind to them of late."
"'Them,' Father?" Diederic approached the altar, bowing his head in respect. He had, from force of habit, crossed himself before remembering that such a gesture was perhaps inappropriate in this particular house of worship. "Not 'us'? That seems rather unneighborly for a man of the cloth."
Cerran laughed, a sound utterly devoid of humor. "I have been the overseer of this church, by decree of the Empyrean See in Caercaelum, for almost four years. Every other soul in Birne has family that has dwelt here for at least that many generations. I'm barely more a fellow to them than you are."
"I'm surprised to hear that, Father." Diederic forced himself to register no expression at the priest's jittery demeanor. Rather than watch the man continue to search for any excuse to retreat, he stepped back and seated himself on the front row of uncomfortable pews. Although he knew he should do his best to set the priest at ease, he could not help stretching his legs out before him, informally—even disdainfully—crossed at the ankles. "I would have thought the citizens in a town like this would be especially respectful of their priest, and devout in their practices. Particularly if times have grown as hard as you say."
Again that humorless laugh. And though Diederic would never have sworn to it, he thought he heard in that disturbing sound a touch of—what? Hysteria? Desperation? "None of them believe, Knight. Not really. Oh, they attend my sermons. They recite the prayers and sing the paeans. They ask me to speak at… at funerals.
"But Birne is an old town, Knight, and she has old customs. When the folk have need to enter the deep wood, it is not to our God Most High and his Six Scions to whom they offer tribute. When the crops wilt, they may make their prayers in church, but it is to the soil itself, and the plants within, that they truly beg. I, and my church, are here for appearances' sake—nothing more."
His hauberk clinking, the wood beneath him creaking, Diederic leaned forward, his hands on his knees. "Are you suggesting, Father Cerran, that every citizen of Birne is a witch?"
"Witch?" The priest's voice rose high, quavering. "What is a witch? The Pontiff did not send me here to convert old wives and herbalists. If the Inquisition thinks to capture every pagan, everyone who respects the old ways, they will have to coat the length and breadth of Malosia in endless layers of blood.
"But necromancers and sorcerers, spirit-worshippers and brides of demons? These, spring from the old ways too, and these the Inquisition—and I, and every good and faithful child of the Scions—must ever watch, and ever destroy.
"It is for this crime, Knight, that Marta must burn. It is for these workers of black magics that the citizens of Birne scour their midst, suspecting even those they trust. It is against these vile blasphemers that I should protect my flock, drawing them into the protective embrace of God and Scions!
"And you know what, Sir Knight? For all my years here, I haven't the first notion if any such evil 'witches' are to be found in Birne, or if every man, woman, and child simply clings to the old ways because I, and all the priests before me, have failed to show them any true alternative."
Father Cerran slammed both fists to the altar—one to each side of the Septateuch—dropped his forehead onto the holy book, and wept.
Staring askance at the sobbing priest, Diederic rose to his feet. His cloak swirled, sprinkling drops of water as he strode toward the exit, shaking his head in pitying disbelief. "Sir Knight?"
He was near the door, his hand reaching for the knob, and for a moment Diederic contemplating pretending he had not heard. Then, suppressing an irritated sigh, he turned about.
The priest stared sightlessly at him with eyes shrunk deep into their sockets, dried and cracked to the consistency of old parchment. His flesh had grown pallid, so pallid, showing the blue web of veins that crossed beneath his skin. Hair fell from his head in locks. His jaw gaped open—wide, far too wide—and hung loosely by flesh alone, wriggling obscenely as his head flopped lifelessly to his left shoulder. Teeth clattered to the floor, their roots twitching mindlessly like maggots, and from deep within the priest's chest there rose a horrible, choking, sepulchral moan.
Diederic could not breathe; he could not blink. His hands seemed trapped in tar as his fingers struggled in vain to close around the hilt of his sword. He felt the doorframe strike him hard in the back as he fell away from the horror before him. If he could only….
"I hope you find what you seek," the priest told him, his voice normal, if a bit gruff from weeping. "Perhaps you can lead the town to salvation as I could not." His cheeks, tear-streaked, were simple flesh; his eyes, though red, were human. No trace of tooth or hair remained on the altar or the floor at his feet, and his face radiated the healthy glow of youth. For the span of two ragged breaths, Diederic remained backed against the door, his own eyes wide and staring. Then, just as Cerran opened his mouth once more, assuredly to ask the knight if something was amiss, Diederic slipped around the frame and disappeared at a dead run into the slow rain.
Long he ran, virtually blind, his boots sinking deep into Birne's central byway. His hair lay plastered to his head, his cloak to his shoulders. He ran until the rain finally let up, though the fog swiftly thickened as if to make up for the shortfall. He ran until his hands and arms were bruised from colliding with obstacles he could barely see in the endless gray: fence posts, trees, gates, even one of the town's stone-walled wells. He ran until his breath rasped in his throat and his sides burned with an inner fire—until he could run no more.
Diederic de Wyndt, proud knight of France, collapsed to his hands and knees in the clinging mud and gasped for breath, his heart pounding as if to shatter his ribs from within.
He could not have seen what he saw! He could not have! Even in this horrific land of ghosts and apparitions, of ancient fey and even older gods, it simply was not possible. No man could live in a realm where it was—not if he wished to retain any shred of his sanity.
Was that it, then? Had his experiences and trials driven him mad? Diederic found that he could view the prospect with surprising equanimity. It would explain a lot, and it might be preferable to the notion of living in a world where these things were real.
Alas, he did not think it likely that he could simply sit back and dismiss all that had happened as the feverish hallucination of a lunatic, much as part of him might wish he could.
But either he truly was seeing things, or something really had happened to Father Cerran back at the church. He had to know which.
It came from the fog even as Diederic began to rise. His only warning was a peculiar whinny, a disturbing call that he could later only describe as a wolf growling through the mouth and throat of a horse. He glimpsed a dark shape dart through the mists, little more than gray on gray. Talons of bronze raked across the mail that protected his left shoulder, shrieking as they rent metal. Blood and tiny links of steel rained down into the mud, and Diederic, spun by the impact, collapsed once more to his belly, his body shaking. The wound stung mercilessly; the blood bubbled and frothed as it came into contact with the unearthly venom deposited by those tearing claws.
Through the pain he heard the beat of hooves circling about him, not sinking into the mud but galloping across it as though it were the heaviest stone. Again that horrific call: an ugly melding of predator and prey. The fog grew thick before Diederic's eyes—impossibly thick, more smoke than vapor—until he could scarcely see the hands on his own outstretched arms. The mists grabbed that sound and spread it about, until it came from everywhere at once.
Grunting, Diederic struggled to his feet. Steel sang against leather as he drew his sword and dropped into a ready crouch. Around and around the hooves clattered and sang; around and around shrieked the ghastly call. He waited, motionless, breathing slow and steady to manage the pain that burned through his shoulder.
There! It appeared again, scarcely visible: the merest hint of a shape that was only vaguely human. Diederic struck, lashing out with a strength born of desperation. The sword arced true, slicing through the mists to collide with what appeared to be the creature's waist.
The blade rang out, bending with the force of the blow, and the knight's hands trembled. But no flesh parted; no blood flew. Again the talons lashed out, and it was only Diederic's frantic efforts, hurling himself backward and away, that saved him from a second envenomed wound. He landed in the muck a third time—this time on his back—and scuttled away from his foe like a crab, the useless sword forgotten in the mud.
The hideous bray rose in pitch and transformed into a cackling and mocking laugh, disdainful of this foolish man and his pathetic weapons. The hooves receded into the distance, but Diederic knew the creature circled. It would be back in moments, cloaked in fog until it was upon him; he doubted that those talons would miss a second time.
But where steel faltered, perhaps lesser weapons might prevail.
Had he run far enough, in his headlong flight from the church? Was he near enough that he could reach his goal before the thing that haunted the mists grew tired of its game? Diederic peeled himself from the mud, tucked his head down, and ran as though his very soul depended on it.
Again he careened from unseen obstacles, hidden in a fog that had grown impossibly dense. The haze fought his efforts to breathe and sat heavy in his lungs, forcing him to cough and choke. His every step was a struggle, against not only the clinging air but the clinging earth. The mud sucked eagerly at his boots and let loose only reluctantly. The cackling, the howling, the beating of hooves—first from this side, then from that; first from before, then from behind—overwhelmed all other sounds save Diederic's own ragged gasps. He felt the presence looming from the endless gray behind him just as he reached the path leading to Marta's front door. He dove forward, but found himself jerked to a painful halt. Talons ripped through the fabric of his heavy cloak, and Diederic was free to move once more.
He struck the front door with both arms crossed before his head. The wood, barely propped in place after the attack of last night, gave way without so much as a protest.
He did not look behind him; he could not spare the time. Praying all the while that those hideous talons were not raised to rend his flesh and corrupt his blood still further, Diederic scrabbled for the pack he had carried all the way from the fortress atop Perdition Hill. He tossed goods and supplies aside, searching, digging….
He had never been certain why he had kept them. A memento perhaps? A reminder of their great, if onerous, escape from Perdition Hill? A good luck charm? Or perhaps it had simply never occurred to him to stop and get rid of them.
Diederic rose to his feet, and from his clenched fist dangled the leg irons he had acquired from the torture chamber of the Empyrean Inquisition.
Iron. Creatures of the fey could not bear the touch of pure, cold iron. Or so Diederic vaguely recalled, from half-remembered legends of foreign nations he had visited on another world.
But it was better than standing around and waiting to die.
It stood in the doorway, heralded by thick plumes of fog that prodded eagerly at the interior of the house, excited at this new domain to conquer and obscure. Still it was hidden, merely a darker form in the mists. Diederic saw arms that were grotesquely long, with talons to shame the fiercest raptor. The abomination's legs sometimes seemed to number two, and sometimes four, depending on how it moved. He saw a snout that was not remotely human open wide in an all-too-human grin, and shake with that same obscene laughter, before the fog grew too thick to see even that.
With a scream of rage, of hatred, of denial, Diederic leaped at the doorway and brought the length of chain down upon his foe. It passed through the spectral shape as though it were as insubstantial as the fog itself….
And just like that, with no fanfare whatsoever, it was over.
The cackling ceased in mid-breath, the shape vanishing from the doorway as though it had never been. The fog retreated and lightened—not evaporating entirely but returning to its prior weight—and even the sting of Diederic's wounds faded away. He twisted his neck awkwardly to examine his shoulder. Mud there was plenty, but he saw no blood, no flesh. Only the faintest damage to his hauberk remained—damage that could well have been the result of his headlong flight and multiple collisions.
Could it all have been a hallucination, no more real than what he thought he had seen in the church? He was certain not. It felt too real to be any product of madness. But then, was that not what madness was?
Diederic poured himself a heavy mug of cider from Marta's kitchen, warming his blood and steadying his nerves. He thought of waiting until Leona returned from whatever errand had called her away, to ask if she'd ever heard tell of such a beast. But after mere moments, his impatience won. By God, he would have his answers! Fortified against the chill of fog and fear, he set out once more from the borrowed house.
But this time—appearances be damned!—he carried his axe with him, and the length of leg irons dangled from his belt.
It finally felt like he was doing something. Diederic strode through the roads of Birne with purpose and determination, wisps of fog swirling in his wake. The weight of his axe felt solid on his shoulder, reassuring. He would learn what in the names of God and Satan was happening here, happening to him!
After several resolute moments of marching through mud and mists, Diederic had to admit to himself that he really had no idea where he was going.
If he was mad, there was nothing to be done for it. Better to assume that what he had seen and felt was real, that some malign power was indeed at work in Birne—be it Marta the accused or someone else. But how to find them? The priest was a simpering, ineffective rag of a man, and if nobody else in town would have aught to do with him….
Diederic pulled up short in the road. There were folk in Birne who were only too happy to interact with the prodigal Leona and her foreign friend. Diederic had dismissed their attack as the antics of young fools, trained to belligerence and fear by generations of insular existence.
Now he began to wonder if he had been too quick to reject other possibilities. Perhaps it was, indeed, time to have a word with his attackers and their families.
A viable idea, that, but harder to implement than a vow of chastity in Sodom's brothels. Of his five attackers, Diederic knew the names of only two, and one of those currently served as fodder for the worms and beetles beneath the village.
That left only Alfrec, and he might as well also have been dead, for all the luck Diederic had in attempting to see him. He felt as though he had gone through half the village before anyone would even direct him to the young man's abode. Once there, the neighbors informed him that Alfrec and his parents had gone to visit relatives in Darbos, and if he ever saw a member of the family again, it would happen before a tribunal charging Diederic with assault. Squelching the temptation to break in and ransack the house, the knight wandered over to a tree stump at the edge of the property and sat himself down to think.
In a town so small, everyone knew something about everyone else. Surely a dozen people could tell him the names of Alfrec's and Rolan's friends, and Diederic was equally sure that he would find his other attackers among them.
Sighing, he rose once more. It might well come to that, but before he began intimidating teenage boys, there was one other source left to exhaust.
Girding himself for what could prove, at best, an unpleasant conversation, Diederic wandered off in search of Rolan's mother, Silma Reveaux.
A housemaid answered the old woman's door, but could only gape in fear at the armor-clad, axe-carrying figure in front of her. Before Diederic could so much as ask, she stammered out an apology that the mistress was not home at present, and might not return for some time, and perhaps his Lordship might try the graveside?
His steps far heavier than could be accounted for by the accumulated muck, Diederic trudged back toward the church. He felt as though he were traveling round and round in circles, but more even than that, he dreaded the notion of confronting the old woman there, of all places. Beside the grave of her son, whom he himself had slain, did not seem the most opportune place to ply her for answers.
He was actually relieved when the gravestones and the tree, silhouetted in black against the misty backdrop, showed no sign of Reveaux. In fact, with the exception of the two guards, Marta—still in the hanging cage that had once more been strung up in the apple tree—and a smattering of shrieking crows, the churchyard seemed devoid of life.
"Apologies, Sir Knight," said the first of the two guards, an older fellow armed with bow and hunting knife. He chewed upon the thick ends of his unruly mustache as he spoke, and was clad in a heavy leather jerkin that was the closest he would ever come to owning armor. "I'm afraid I've not seen old Silma since she left the funeral."
"Saw her talking to Theoric," offered the other, younger and clean-shaven, with the arrogance common to young men almost as handsome as they believed themselves to be. "We were hauling the witch's cage out of the church to bring her back here, so I heard none of it. But they were on about something. Probably," he added with an ugly smirk, "how much longer to wait before burning the bitch to ash. I've no idea where she might have gone after that."
"The bitch might." The voice was rasping, made ragged by pain and weak by starvation, but it might once have been gentle, feminine. All three men looked up to see Marta leaning heavily against the bars of her cage, peering at them with wide eyes.
Diederic turned to approach, only to find both men moving with him. "I'm terribly sorry, Sir," the older man began, "but without Theoric or one of the other elders present, I think it would be inappropriate of us to allow you to speak with the prisoner."
"It's for your own good, you understand," the younger added. "We'd not want her using any of her devilish wiles on you."
Diederic took a single step. "I am going to speak with the prisoner now," he told them. "If you like, you may attempt to stop me."
"And what if we do?" the young man snarled back. "You'll kill us like you did Rolan?" The older guard, for his part, was wise enough to move away.
"No," Diederic continued, his voice calm and even. "Under the circumstances, I imagine I'll find quite different ways to kill you."
The young man laughed—a laugh that died midway through his second breath as it slowly dawned on him that, just perhaps, the expressionless warrior was neither jesting nor boasting. His own expression falling, he nervously fingered the handle of his knife even as he ran his eyes up the length of Diederic's axe.
Then, with exaggerated deference to his older companion, he too stepped aside. "I suppose no harm would come of a short conversation."
Diederic had moved past him before he finished speaking, to stand beside the cage. It was the first time he had seen Marta up close. Emotions warred deep within his soul, and he could not determine whether he felt pity or revulsion the stronger.
Her hair, a deeper red than her cousin's, was clumped together in filthy strings. Her face and hands were coated in dirt, and the rags she wore stunk worse than any Diederic himself had sported as a prisoner of the Inquisition. The bottom of the cage was encrusted with human waste, and her breath reeked of sickness and hunger.
"Leona says you've agreed to help me," she wheezed, squeezing fingers through the bars to take his hand. "Thank you. I want you to know—"
Diederic could not prevent himself from recoiling at her touch. "You said you might know something of value?" he prodded, eager to be away.
"What? Oh, yes. Yes. You seek Silma Reveaux?"
"You believe she can help me?"
He bit back on an urge to shout, to rail at her for her digression. "I don't know. I hope so. Where is she?"
"I cannot say for certain. But," she continued, as Diederic's eyes narrowed and he drew breath to speak, "I know that when she's been distraught in the past, she often took to the orchard. She's passed entire days there, tending the trees."
His glance at the guards left no doubt as to his meaning. "Go back toward the center of town," the older man told him, "and then west. The orchard takes up much of that side of Birne. You'll not miss it."
Diederic nodded once, and was gone, leaving Marta's last, gasping "Thank you!" to float unheeded on the breeze.
The orchard was impossible to miss, indeed. Several acres in size, it was surrounded by a short wooden fence—presumably intended only to mark the edges of the property as it was far too small and feeble to keep anything out. Beyond the orchard began the thick reaches of the Cineris, but even without the fence, the demarcation would have been obvious. The orchard consisted exclusively of fruit trees, and even the unnaturally spaced trees of the forest were not placed in such orderly rows as the orchard's own. The rich black soil smelled of new growth and the recent rain.
Ladders and wheelbarrows lay scattered about, left to rot and rust in the damp. It was wasteful, and seemed unlike the folk of Birne in Diederic's limited experience. Perhaps someone had been using them earlier that day, despite the weather, and had simply not completed his tasks?
Whatever the case, Diederic heard nobody at work in the orchard now. Branches creaked in the wind, leaves rustled, and small animals occasionally darted from tree to tree, but he heard no conversation, no sounds of labor. The gate screeched as he pushed it open, but even that warning attracted no attention. Leaving it standing ajar, Diederic moved into the orchard.
It was an impressive accomplishment, whatever else might be said for it. Scores of trees stood in near-perfect rows, gathered in groups of similar type, so that all the apples might be gathered at this time, all the pears at that, and so forth. So early in the season, not much had sprouted, but Diederic could only imagine that in a short span the branches would be laden with colorful fruits, the air tangy with their sweet aroma. It was remarkably lush and healthy, the lot of it—particularly given the townsfolk's claims of feeble growth and crop blight elsewhere in Birne.
Largely unimpeded by the mists, thanks to the orchard's rigid design, Diederic strolled hither and yon among the trees. He found a few more tools, and several stepladders as well, all suggesting that myriad people worked the orchard, but nobody was present now. Farther he walked, determined to search the enclosure from end to end, ever more desperate with each step. If the old woman was not to be found here, he was out of clues. And indeed she was not—but she had been.
It was the size of the prints, largely but not utterly obliterated by the rains, that attracted Diederic's attention. Most of the footprints he had seen in the soil were heavy: boots, work shoes, even bare feet, but all clearly belonging to those who tended the trees. These were smaller, far smaller, and close inspection revealed that each print nearly overlapped the next, so feeble were the steps that made them. Assuming Birne had no crippled children he had yet to meet, these could only be the footprints of an old, arthritic woman.
Once found, they were easily followed, and eventually led Diederic to a spot near the orchard's westernmost edge. Here the trees were planted ever more closely together, creating a patch of earth where sunlight rarely fell. Was there a fruit that thrived better in darkness than in light? Diederic was unsure.
But Reveaux had come here, of that he was certain. The prints led into the midst of the tight copse, then out once more; what she might have done within was impossible to say. The mud showed heavy sign of upheaval, and Diederic could not help but wonder if she had perhaps unearthed or buried something. Dropping to his knees and leaning his axe against a heavy root, he began to sift through the soil.
At a depth of two inches, the loam was just as it was at the surface: thick and dark. At four, he was startled to come across a layer of sand. It was a rich red in hue, like no beach or desert he had ever seen. It stung to the touch, leaving the skin pink and irritated—not terribly painful, but enough to discourage most men from digging further. Even with his vastly limited knowledge of agriculture, Diederic was quite positive it was out of place here.
The knight carefully wiped his hands on the hem of his tattered cloak, and pulled his leather gauntlets from his belt and drew them on before proceeding.
At a depth of six inches beneath the earth of the orchard, he found it.
Initially, with only a narrow hole through which to see, he could not be certain he had discovered anything unnatural. For long minutes he labored, even going back out toward the gate and borrowing one of the shovels left untended so that he might work faster. And finally he had uncovered enough to be certain of what he saw. He recognized it from a few pagan writings he had perused during his studies, the better to know his enemy, and from the ornate ceiling of the sanctuary in the tunnels beneath Perdition Hill, and even from his brief glances at the pages of the Laginate Grimoire.
Beneath the soil of Birne's orchard lay a circle of summoning, no smaller than six feet in diameter. The outer ring, and the heavy lines of the pentagram within, were formed by the roots of the trees themselves, overlapped and intertwined. How long it must have taken to produce such a thing, how many years—how many generations!—of careful placement and cultivation, shaping and pruning. Smaller signs within and around the pentagram were more clearly manmade, consisting of carefully measured lengths of wood lashed together with heavy twine. And across it all, carved into wood both living and dead, were innumerable runes and phrases of power. Most were in languages Diederic could not recognize, let alone interpret.
The wood in the center was charred a midnight black, and the soil around it smelled thickly of incense, roses, brimstone, and blood.
Diederic knelt beside the circle, leaning heavily on his borrowed spade, and could barely comprehend what he saw. His muscles ached, sweat dripped from his brow, and his hands were drenched inside their leather gauntlets, but he was oblivious to the complaints of his body.
This could be the work of no single heretic, nor even a small coven of witches. Such a feat took great effort, and more importantly, time. The taint of black magics ran through Birne, and it ran deeper than he had imagined.
At least it meant he'd not gone mad, though he found the thought less comforting than he otherwise might have.
Finally looking up from his crouch, Diederic saw something else, something blocked from his view by hanging branches when he stood upright.
At the southwest edge of the orchard, between the enclosing fence and the heavy growth of the Cineris, stood a house.
Easily the match of any structure he had seen in Birne, save for the church itself, the domicile was three stories tall, and many paces on a side. That it had stood for many years, longer than most of the village, was clear enough. The wood was rough, rotten in spots, and planks boarded up windows that boasted neither shutters nor glass. The brick chimney had partly collapsed, leaving a gaping hole just above the roof, and the porch was so thickly overgrown it might have been just another part of the yard. The decaying wood and shifting earth caused the entire structure to lean toward the south. It looked tired, Diederic thought, as though it could tolerate only a few more years before it would simply fall over and slumber.
Even from this distance, Diederic could see the heavy padlock that hung on the front door. It was of black iron, and if not truly new, it was certainly of far more recent vintage than the house itself. Nor could he help but notice that a single window, out of the entire house, boasted a sizable gap between the boards that blocked it. It could be coincidence, or the result of shoddy workmanship, but it would be enough to allow anyone within the structure to peer out—and it perfectly overlooked the copse of trees in which the summoning circle lay hidden.
Diederic stood and moved toward the dilapidated house, determined to investigate it. Or at least, he tried. Perhaps it was the disorienting effects of the fog, making shapes seem farther than they were, but try as he might, he could not make his way to the property. Here, he circumnavigated a thick tree, only to find himself moving back toward the main entrance. There, he strode directly between rows, which should have carried him in a straight line, only to glance up and discover that the house which was supposed to be before him was now off to his left. He even went so far as to take hold of the fence in one hand and follow it along the perimeter of the orchard, only to find that a heavy bough blocked his way. He would have to release his hold on the fence long enough to go around, and sure enough, he found himself elsewhere in the orchard than he expected when he did so.
Diederic had been lost before, more than a time or two. He knew how it happened, knew what mistakes to avoid. And he came to know, as he pondered his current conundrum, that he had made none of those errors here.
He was not confused. He was not perplexed by the fog. Something was actively preventing him from finding his way, something he could only construe as witchcraft.
Scowling, Diederic returned to the fence once more. By God, he was not about to let some foul sorcery keep him from his goal! Again he followed the fence until the bough blocked his way, and there he stopped and looked carefully around him.
The branch protruded from what looked very much like a peach tree, though it was by far the largest Diederic had ever seen. The branch was nearly as thick at its base as the trunk itself, and narrowed only marginally as it reached for the fence. The builders, in fact, had been forced to construct around it. Diederic contemplated simply hopping the fence, but he would have to let go of it long enough to move around the branch, and if the ward functioned on both sides, he could find himself lost not in the orchard, but in the depths of the Cineris. Not a risk he was prepared to take, no matter how determined he might be. So he would simply have to remove the obstacle. Diederic grimaced as he hefted the axe from his shoulder—this would not do the blade any good at all—and raised it above his head.
From a knothole in the bough, a single hornet buzzed angrily at Diederic's face.
The knight lowered the axe long enough to wave the insect away with his left hand. It took a moment. The tiny creature kept returning, as though it understood its home was in danger and was determined to wreak what miniscule vengeance it could upon the perpetrator. Only when he finally caught it in the palm of his gauntlet and crushed the life from it did the hornet cease to pester him.
Again he raised his axe, turning his attention back to the branch….
A branch that now wore a writhing, squirming coat of life. Not just hornets, but beetles, earwigs, ants, and wood roaches swarmed over the bough, transforming it into a living thing. From beneath the roots of the tree, worms and centipedes emerged in an endless stream, and spiders descended on invisible strands, anchored to the branches above.
Gagging, Diederic stepped back, his mind assailed by memories of his helplessness in the chamber below Jerusalem, the remembered sensation of insects squirming across his skin. He felt movement on his arms and slapped furiously at them, before realizing that it was just a quiver of revulsion, the hair on his skin standing upright. He raised his axe aloft a third time, shifted his weight, and then froze as every flying insect on the bough took to the air at once.
It was impossible! The vermin could not possibly be defending the tree! Perhaps…. Perhaps it was another illusion, terrifying to behold but vanishing in mere instants, such as the apparent transformation of the priest.
When he felt the first agonizing sting on the side of his neck, and the burning bite of fire ants clambering down the inside of his boots, Diederic decided that this was no illusion. The knight's composure and decorum crumbling to dust, he fled.
Across the orchard he ran, stumbling over roots and tiny contours in the soil. He heard nothing but angry buzzing in his ears, and he refused to look behind him to see if the unholy swarm pursued.
Only when he had cleared the gate to stand once more in Birne's tiny roadways, well outside the orchard, did Diederic pause. No sign of the swarm appeared outside the fence, though in the fog it could easily have lurked just out of sight. His flesh burning where he had been bitten and stung, Diederic took a moment to divest himself of any clinging insects, and then limped back to Marta's house.
"… doing at the orchard anyway?" Leona asked as she moved from kitchen to garden, collecting this herb and that. While she might have lacked Violca's expertise in the healing and herbal arts, village life had versed her well in the basics.
"I'd wanted to speak with Silma Reveaux," Diederic explained, scratching idly at a welt on his neck. "I still do, though I've got a rather more extensive range of questions to ask her now."
The young woman reappeared and began daubing bits of powdered leaves on his various insect bites. As she reached his left wrist, she cast Diederic a questioning glance. He merely nodded and clenched his teeth.
Using a small blade, razor-sharp and meticulously clean, Leona slashed open the infected skin, allowing the pus to drain, and treated the wound with a slightly different collection of herbs. The smell of the powdered plant was overpowering, and thankfully so, as it cloaked the sickly miasma of decay that accompanied the fevered humors. Other than a faint gurgle at the back of his throat, Diederic endured the ritual without complaint.
"I think," he said a moment later, partly to distract himself from the pain, "that I've come up with a way to get into that house. I'll need to search around your cousin's possessions, see if she has what I need."
He glanced up from the table as he spoke. His breath, already fast and uneven from the pain, lodged in his throat, and sweat broke out across his brow.
The skin, deathly white, clung to Leona's bones, transforming her into a walking corpse. Strips of flesh hung quivering from her face, torn aside to reveal the gleam of bloody skull beneath. And that face! She had turned away from him, yet her head, as it hung loosely and unevenly from her neck, had warped and turned to meet his gaze. Her chin remained pointed forward, her jaw distending horribly as the upper half of her features twisted about to stare upon him. From that gaping chasm of darkness, Diederic heard the moan of a dozen women deep in the throes of ecstasy, each gurgling to a halt as unseen throats were slit one by one.
And then, between one blink of the eye and the next, she was Leona once more, frowning as she placed the remaining powder in various jars. Whatever croaks of horror Diederic might have made in the back of his throat, she had apparently taken as more indications of pain. "I don't believe you should go back—Diederic? What's wrong?"
She could only stare as, ignoring her queries, he dashed about the room, checking every window, locking every door. She uttered a brief shriek as he overturned the table, spilling leaves and powders across the floor, and dragged her down behind it. Blade in hand he waited, gasping, seemingly unable to decide whether to watch the entrances, or her.
Gradually, his pallor faded. Whatever assault he had expected had clearly failed to materialize.
"Diederic?" she asked again.
He merely shook his head. "I thought…."
What could he tell her? That he was ensorcelled, or haunted, or harrowed? It only meant that whatever witch lurked in the village was working black magics against him. If Leona could not help him, why endanger her any further? And if his soul was damned by the touch of these magics, well, Malosia had done nothing if not prepare him for Hell.
"I thought I saw something outside," he finished lamely. Working to bring his gasping lungs back under control, Diederic dropped his weapon, clasped his hands together to stop them shaking, and forced a wan smile across his face. "So, I should keep away from that house. Worried for me, are you?"
She stared a moment longer, but no further explanation was forthcoming. "No. Well, yes, but that's not it. I just believe you have better options to explore. More likely possibilities." She rose and began gathering bits of broken pottery and scattered powder. He, too, stood, and rather sheepishly righted the table.
"But I haven't. Most of the townsfolk refuse to speak with me, and those that do haven't offered me anything worthwhile. They all believe that Marta is guilty, and while I can't say that she is or is not, something is happening in this town. I thought for a time that the priest might be responsible, that the crop failures and the like might be intended to drive Birne away from 'witchcraft' and into the arms of the Church. But Father Cerran is a pathetic fool, nothing worse."
"The Church does not use magic," Leona protested.
"Maybe not before." Diederic, impatient to be back on the hunt, chose not to explain further.
Leona shook her head, exasperated. "You'd be wasting your time."
Diederic tilted his head. "Meaning what, Leona?"
She shrugged once. "That house has been abandoned for years, and even before then, it was a shared property—like the orchard—among the town's founding families. It would be disrespectful to search it without acquiring permission from all of them. But there's no need. I cannot imagine there's anything there."
"I see." Diederic stood and poked once or twice at the new bandage on his wrist. "Leona, this is not the first time someone's mentioned Birne's 'founding families' to me. And I cannot help but notice that the old woman I'm looking for is from one of them. These families are arse-deep in whatever's happening here, and if they once owned the house, I cannot think of a better reason to look into it."
"Diederic, please. I really do not believe…." But he was already moving, digging in cupboards, closets, and chests until he had what he required. Then, with hardly a backward glance, he was gone once more.
Minutes passed as Leona stared at the door, conflicting loyalties warring in her heart. Finally, she stepped out into the street.
Unhindered at all by the fog, for she could have traversed Birne's length and breadth while blindfolded, she made her way to one of the town's largest homes.
The door opened only after several moments of her angry pounding.
"My dear Leonera," Theoric greeted her. "What can I—"
Leona's response was an openhanded slap across the elder's face. He staggered back a step, eyes wide, with one hand raised to his stinging cheek.
"This is your fault, you old fool!" she snarled at him, not permitting him the opportunity to protest. "If you hadn't allowed everyone to use my cousin as your scapegoat, we wouldn't be on the edge of calamity now!"
"What in the Scions' names are you on about, woman?"
"Don't you dare invoke the Scions, Theoric! Not to me, not now. Diederic's been to the orchard, and he plans to search your old house."
The old man frowned. "He'll never find his way, Leona. And if he does, I'd remind you that it was you who brought him into this, not I."
"Because I wanted to save my cousin! And make no mistake, Theoric. Now that he's put his mind to it, he will work his way through the wards. You know better than I what he's likely to find."
Theoric's frown deepened. "Perhaps," he conceded, "you had better come inside and discuss this further."
Even as he stepped back to allow his guest entry, a sharp wind gusted from the west, a wind that smelled of dried earth and rotten apples. Leona turned to face it, casually, as though mildly curious, and gasped once. Her entire body shuddered, and then she was off at a run which Theoric, even in his youth, could never have matched. He could only stare as she vanished from sight. Stare and begin to weep as he came to understand what had occurred—and even worse, what must now inevitably follow.
Next Week: Chapter Ten...
"Well met, Father. May I speak with you a moment?"
Again, Diederic stooped by the unearthed circle, deep within Birne's orchard. He had feared that simply setting foot within the gate would herald the return of the insect swarm, but so far the only vermin he had seen were a few worms unearthed by the recent downpour, and a colony of ants feasting upon one of said worms that had not survived the rain. Still, he avoided the large peach tree, just to be certain.