Strange creatures lurk in our dreams. And sometimes, when the veil that parts their world from ours is a little frayed, they stalk, eyes agleam, into our lives ...
She knew she wasn't supposed to be there – in the shadow of that wall of stone, damp from rain and cold to the touch. But then, there were a lot of things that she wasn't supposed to do. And that had never stopped her before.
There had always been rumors about the castle. On cold wintry nights in her village, when they huddled together around a fire, inching away from the shadows that the flames kept at bay, the tales seemed very real. Someone would clear his throat, cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder and recount in a hushed whisper the latest abomination that had sullied the dark place. He wouldn't have seen it himself, but he would have it on good authority, from a source so impeccable that he would vouch for the truth of what he had heard with his life.
So the man would speak, as his face glowed red from the leaping flames - of screams that rent the night, of lifeless bodies slowly twisting in the wind, of the great door flanked by grinning skulls mounted on pikes, of gatherings of wolves that fought over the flesh of men and women who were flung, still alive, from the battlements. But Brianna had learnt not to believe everything that she heard. Unlike the others, she had seen the place.
She had always been a solitary creature, content to be left to herself as she wandered aimlessly through the woods that surrounded the village. And then her parents had died, carried away within the space of a week by a plague that ravaged their settlement. In the end, she could barely recognize their bodies, bags of skin bereft of breath, their surface ruptured by the poison of the pestilence. There was no longer anything left in those hunks of flesh of the ones she had loved. She buried them herself in the meadow ... on a grassy knoll, warm and sun-kissed. In the summer, tiny flowers would bloom on their graves.
The villagers had been kind to her, but she also knew that, like all else, there were limits to their generosity. She had to find a way to earn her living and quickly. Her father had been a blacksmith. That was not a trade that a girl could ply and she had learnt no other. All that she knew were the woods that ringed the village - the coolness of their shade, the roughness of the bark, the music of the leaves rustling in a summer breeze, the quiet gurgle of water gliding over pebbles rubbed smooth by time. None of that seemed particularly useful until one night, as she lay on her bed gazing at the stars framed in her tiny window, she was struck by a passing thought.
The next morning, she dusted off her mother's favorite wicker basket, spread a clean square of linen at the bottom and set off into the woods. In the evening, she returned, her fingernails caked with dirt, her basket filled with mushrooms. It had been hard work, but as she bartered them for flour and a few heads of turnip, she knew that she could keep body and soul together.
It was during one of those rambles through the woods that she had come upon the castle. The trees had thinned, melting into brush and then into a meadow, unkempt and overrun, and there it stood ... in the middle of the sun drenched clearing – solid, unforgiving, a wall of unremitting black broken only by thin embrasures from which arrows could be fired at unwelcome intruders. As she stood within the fringe of trees, concealed by the broad trunk of an ancient oak, peering at the battlements, she felt a shiver run down her spine. It was a clear sunny day, but around the castle, the air seemed to thicken and she wrapped her arms around herself against the sudden cold.
Her first instinct was one of flight, but her curiosity overcame the sudden rush of panic and she settled herself to survey the place more carefully. The castle was laid out in a rectangle, its smooth straight lines broken only by the swelling of the towers that marked each corner. There was no sign of life. Nothing seemed to stir within the walls. There was no smoke, no smells of cooking though she was perhaps too far away to catch a whiff of either. Entry to the castle was through a giant stone archway, tall as five men. It was barred by thick wooden doors, covered by metal spikes. The wood, gnarled and ancient, bore the scars of battles long forgotten.
While the place was intimidating, she also felt strangely reassured. At least there were none of the things that she was warned about - spears tipped with grinning skulls, corpses dangling from branches or wolves baying for her blood. Somehow she sensed there would never be. She wasn't sure why, but she knew.
That evening, as she lay on her mattress reflecting on the events of her day, she resolved not to go back to that clearing, to the black forbidding bulk of the castle etched against the sky. The resolution didn't last very long. For her, the place seemed to hold a dark indefinable allure. The next morning, she found herself retracing her steps until she stood once again at the edge of those woods where the trees faded into brush.
It became a daily affair. When she suffered an occasional twinge of fear, she consoled herself that she was yet to see anything untoward. The stories that they told around the fire were probably just that – stories. And she ought to be reluctant, she told herself, to abandon that place for an old wives tale. In the nooks and crannies of the fallen tree trunks - damp and rotting - that ringed the clearing, she had found the best mushrooms in the woods, the biggest and the juiciest.
In that place, she could fill her basket leisurely and then find a spot of sunlight - a fallen log, a tree stump – where she could sit for a while and rest her weary feet. Over the weeks, she grew more curious about the castle and of what lay behind its walls. In all the time that she had been there, there had been no movement, scarcely a hint that there was life within its entrails. But surely there must be, she thought. Surely nothing so prepossessing could lie unclaimed or unused.
Then one evening, as the light was beginning to fade, she did the unthinkable. She crept out of the shadow of the woods and across the meadow towards the dark walls in the distance. Her basket was still half empty. In the preceding weeks, she had stripped the fallen tree trunks clean and mushrooms were now harder to come by. The clearing that surrounded the castle looked promising. It seemed a pity not to explore it. It wouldn't take long, she thought. Before she knew it, her basket would be full and she would be gone. And no one would be the wiser.
Her skirt caught in the knee length grass as she waded forward. The linen of her skirt came away wet and stuck to her skin. It felt clammy. She clutched the handle of her wicker basket so tightly that her knuckles shone white. She quickly gave up pretending that she wasn't afraid. Her mouth was dry and her heart was hammering against her ribs. Her eyes flitted nervously along the battlements. She half expected at any moment to be dropped dead by an arrow let loose by some hidden archer. And yet something she didn't fully understand impelled her on.
She had never regarded herself as particularly brave. And this seemed suicidal. The many tales of horror that she had heard around her village fire, the warmth of which at that moment seemed so far away, rang in her ears. She had of course seen no hint in the past weeks that any of those stories were true. But just then, that didn't seem particularly reassuring. Sweat began to trickle down her brow and she blinked hard to keep her eyes from blurring.
When she was finally in the shadow of the great wall and no longer visible from the battlements, she let out a long sigh of relief. She leaned her back against the stone and mopped her brow with a napkin. It was some time before her heart stopped pounding and she could survey her surroundings. It was as she had thought. The area around the castle was wild and overgrown. Shielded from sunlight, the ground at the foot of the walls was rich and moist. And the mushrooms? Ah, ... the mushrooms! She had never seen anything quite like it. The earth and the rotting bits of timber that were strewn across it were blooming with a myriad colors - glistening grays, bright yellows, striking oranges. She examined them with a practiced eye. Some of them were edible, some not so.
She leaned down to caress the velvety surface of the toadstool at her feet. The cap was the size of her palm, a deep red with a smattering of white dots. As she ran the tip of a forefinger along its skin, it swayed on its stem, which seemed almost too fragile to hold it up.
"I wouldn't pick that one if I were you."
She almost jumped out of her skin and he reached forward to steady her.
"I'm sorry if I startled you," he said.
His voice was warm and there was a hint of something in it that she couldn't put her finger on. Amusement? ... irony? ... or was it surprise?
He was tall. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders and she had to look up to see his face. He was dark, with high cheekbones and a jaw that seemed chiseled from stone. His lips were in sharp contrast to the hardness of his features. They were surprisingly soft and full. He had a head of unruly hair that was coal black and softly curled. It became him. For one fleeting moment, Brianna was struck by an almost irresistible impulse to reach up and run her fingers through his hair. She forced herself to take a deep breath and the impulse passed.
She caught him looking at her questioningly and she blushed. He had the most penetratingly black eyes, like night distilled. They seemed to be able to see through her. She wondered how old he was. It was difficult to say. He didn't look very old. He seemed to be in his prime, but his eyes were somehow ... ancient. There was wisdom in them and warmth and knowing as though he had weathered a thousand storms.
He was still holding her by the elbow. She gently eased herself free from his grip and he let her. She ought to have been afraid of him, this stranger who had emerged from nowhere like an apparition. She wondered how he had crept upon her in such silence. She had not been alerted by a single sound, not even by the faintest footfall. It was something of a puzzle, one that she didn't have the time just then to dwell upon.
He was clad in black from head to foot, from the midnight silk of his shirt and breeches to the black leather of his boots. He wore a cape, held loosely at his throat by a silver clasp. There was no wind, but the soft fabric of the cape swirled softly around his knees. He seemed elemental, as though he had grown out of the earth. For a mad moment, Brianna caught herself wondering whether he did. She couldn't help noticing the cane that he held almost absently in his hand. It was beautiful, with a handle of onyx and a body of ebony, exquisitely carved, a dragon curled languorously around its length, its scales shimmering in the setting sun.
He stood still as she examined him, almost as though he didn't wish to frighten her by sudden movement.
"Who are you?" she asked finally.
He smiled then, displaying a set of teeth that were startlingly white against his darker skin.
"I think I should be asking you that question," he said gently and then added, "I'm Raoul."
"I stay here," he said simply, inclining his head towards the wall that loomed above them both.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, for a moment nonplussed. He was nothing like what she would have expected of the Master of that forbidden place. But then, what had she expected?
"I'm Brianna," she offered shyly. Suddenly, she felt very awkward and gawky. He looked so ... distinguished.
He sensed her discomfort and looked away from her, down at the toadstool that had been claiming her attention when he came upon her. He plucked it softly out of the earth and ran an exploratory finger along the white gills beneath the colorful cap.
"Fly agaric," he murmured and then smiled as he held it out to her, "Be careful. It is not to be eaten. It will inflame your mind with visions ... of things that are not of this world." After a moment, he added quietly, "It can be dangerous to see things that your eyes refuse to reveal." He was looking at her intently, with a frank curiosity that unsettled her.
She extended her hand to accept the proffered gift and then stood there, her eyes fixed on her shoes in a paroxysm of shyness. When she stole a glance at him from under her lashes, he was still smiling. His voice was soft when he spoke. He seemed to sense her nervousness.
"It's late," he said, looking around him at the gathering darkness, "It's not often that I've a guest in my home. I would be honored if you would me join me for supper at my table."
She knew she should decline, but the words wouldn't form. She felt exhausted, drained of energy and of any semblance of will. And suddenly, the prospect of a warm hearth and food in her belly seemed impossible to resist. She followed him meekly along the wall, her basket dangling from the crook of her elbow. When they reached the giant doors, he didn't call or even knock. He didn't have to. The doors slid open as though on smooth oiled hinges, without so much as a creak. Her head was swimming from the effort to make sense of it all. The puzzles were piling up.
The archway led into an open quadrangle surrounded on all sides by the structure of the castle itself. It was imposing, surging upwards in two levels of stone. Unlike the outer wall of the castle, the inner walls had large windows that opened into the quadrangle. Directly opposite them at the end of that seemingly endless courtyard was a huge door of weathered oak. A stone path led straight to it. Raoul set off down the path without a backward glance and Brianna scrambled behind him struggling to keep up.
The door swung open as they arrived and he passed through it, with her scurrying behind. The man who held the door open was old and withered, his mane of silver hair flowing like a river of light down to his shoulders. His clothes were neat, but not opulent, the clothes of a retainer. He regarded Brianna curiously as she stepped through the door and into the great hall.
The hall itself was enormous, its length spanning the breadth of the castle. Brianna had to crane her neck to look up at the dark wooden ceiling. The rafters that held up the roof were as thick as her waist and supported on stone pillars scattered around the hall. For a room that large, it was well lit - by huge circular metal chandeliers that hung from the rafters, by flares inserted into brackets along the walls and by candles of beeswax impaled on the spikes of the iron candelabra that stood three apiece on the long oaken tables that ran the length of the room.
To Brianna's feminine eye, the room was uncompromisingly masculine. Suits of armor stood in the gaps between the huge windows that opened onto the quadrangle. The walls were festooned with the emblems of war – crossbows, swords, lances, spears, shields. A raised platform ran along one end of the hall. It held a table that could seat twenty. Unlike the plain wooden tables on the floor below, the high table was intricately carved, its edge an unruly profusion of flowers and vines with animal faces peering from the thicket. The table was flanked not by wooden benches, but by high backed chairs, which looked surprisingly delicate. The legs were fluted and the back of each chair was an intricately carved wooden trellis. The high table was the only one in the room that was laid. And it was laid for two. Were they expecting me, she wondered, but how is that possible? Her head was beginning to ache from the strangeness of it all.
As they approached the table, the old retainer stepped forward, but his master waved him back. He pulled out a chair for her, waiting for her to sit down before taking a seat himself. The old man was still standing stiffly in a corner peering at Brianna intently. He dragged his eyes away only when he heard the gentle clink of Raoul's knife against the crystal goblet. He scurried forward then to pour each of them a glass of mead from a pitcher.
"You must forgive him. Zayev is unused to company," he said as he regarded the retreating back of the old man thoughtfully. She was warming to his voice. It was soft and kind and deep. It was the sort of voice that one could listen to forever, even in a language that one couldn't understand.
"There is nothing to forgive," she replied softly, "He must wonder why I'm here," and then added after a moment's hesitation, quietly, almost as though she were speaking to herself, "I'm wondering myself."
"You're here to be fed," he said, the soft rumble of laughter in his voice.
Brianna found herself smiling, almost against her will. She was hungry.
There was enough food on the table to feed a small village and she didn't know where to begin. She carefully picked up the crystal goblet at her elbow and took a sip of mead as she made up her mind. The warm amber colored liquid slid smoothly down her throat. It was rich and spicy, with a hint of lavender, a touch of orange peel ... a faint memory of cinnamon? She sighed softly as the flavors crackled on her palate.
He sensed her hesitation and thought it might help to describe the fare on the table leaving her to choose what she fancied. It was a feast fit for a king. There was venison and quail and a huge lamprey, glassy eyed, drowning in a delicate plum sauce. There was fruit – wild berries, grapes and figs – so fresh that she could almost see a sheen of dew on their shiny skins. There was a stew of some ilk with steam curling up from its surface.
The venison was so exquisitely done that her knife seemed to glide through it as she helped herself to a slice. As the meat melted in her mouth and she tore soft hunks from the loaf of bread, still warm from the oven, she felt a deeper sense of well being than she had known in a long time.
She felt his eyes upon her and turned to face him. His plate was empty. He hadn't touched the food on the table. His fingers were curled absently around the delicate flute of the crystal goblet as he regarded her quietly. He seemed utterly comfortable, but after a few moments of that quiet scrutiny, she began to find the silence oppressive. She washed down the venison with a mouthful of mead and enquired politely, "Aren't you hungry?"
"No," he replied simply, as he continued to watch her with undisguised interest.
She averted her eyes, disconcerted by the intensity of his gaze, and looked around her. There was a broad silk pennant on the wall that she hadn't noticed before. Against a scarlet background was the face of a wolf in the helmet of a knight. The silver of its fur and the startling whiteness of its fangs contrasted with the midnight black of the helmet. It suddenly struck her that the image on the banner was a coat of arms. The same device was emblazoned on the suits of armor that lined the walls and the shields that hung above them. It struck her as very singular, but she let it pass from her thoughts.
When the meal was done and her tummy, after what had been a longish interval that did not bear thinking about, was pleasantly full, she turned her mind to the question of finding her way home. He immediately sensed her unease.
"It's very late," he acknowledged, "May I offer you a ride home?"
She was hesitant to impose even further upon this stranger who had been so unerringly gracious all evening. But outside, it was pitch dark and she was reluctant to venture alone at this hour into the doubtful mercy of the woods.
"That would be most kind," she replied.