“Don’t look back!” Jakob’s voice was harsh and raspy. “Death will take all of us … it has no mercy!”
Tree branches grabbed at his tabard and scratched his face as he ran, but Morgan did not need his companion’s encouragement to keep going. Behind them, in a clearing not far away, four of their fellow guardsmen were dead, butchered like pigs. One of them had been his friend and lover, Lara. Morgan did not know who or what their assailants were; he had only caught a glimpse of one, clothed in flowing black robes with great horns protruding from its skull-like face.
What the attackers wanted, Morgan did not know. Maybe they were bandits looking to loot the caravan full of Duke Dargon’s annual tribute to the king bound for Magnus. Regardless of who they were, the fact remained that they had ambushed Morgan’s troop once the soldiers were inside the great forest dividing northern and southern Baranur, and already too many friends were dead.
Morgan and Jakob burst from the trees onto the road and nearly ran headlong into Lord Connall’s horse. Connall halted the caravan at the sight of the two soldiers. Jakob nudged Lord Connall’s horse a little as he clutched at the commander’s hand. He left a greasy red streak along the horse’s side, splattered and dripping with the blood of his comrades as he was.
“What on Makdiar has happened?” the young lord demanded.
“My lord,” Jakob’s face was ashen and his eyes wild. As he spoke, his voice cracked with lunacy. “It is death! It has come for us!”
“Grab hold of yourself, man!” Lord Connall gripped the soldier’s arm.
“D-death has a pale face …” Jakob stared into Lord Connall’s eyes, his body shaking. He continued to shout gibberish as Commander Connall fought to free his hand from Jakob’s grip.
“Forgive him, my lord,” Morgan helped the lord by prying Jakob’s fingers open. Morgan was embarrassed at his fellow guard’s disgraceful and undisciplined behaviour, but also glad that he wasn’t the gibbering idiot.
“Morgan!” Connall turned his attention to Morgan. “What has happened?”
“Lord Connall,” Morgan said. “We were ambushed. They killed the others. The scouts were already dead when we got there.”
Once the words were out of his mouth Morgan began to tremble, and he felt cold all over. The others had died — Lara had died! She’d been killed horribly by those things. He could still hear her screams, one after another, repeating over and over in his head. Why hadn’t he saved her?
“Your lordship,” the priest Orto approached on his dilapidated pony. “There are forces of evil at work here. Certainly, these are servants of the underworld, sent to destroy the sacred text we carry with us.”
“Bah,” Lord Connall scoffed. “They are but a few bandits, trying to steal the king’s gold. There can be no more than a half dozen men out there, and all we need do is chase them out of the trees that we may deal with them.”
“No, I beg you, your lordship,” Orto pleaded. “You mustn’t leave the wagons, or the holy artefact we carry! You musn’t leave the king’s gold unprotected!”
“No, of course not,” Lord Connall signalled the caravan to begin moving again. “It was but wishful thinking. We move. Keep a close watch, troops. We’ve lost too many this night already.”
“What? Keep a close watch?” Morgan said, guild giving way to anger. “That’s all?”
“Save it, Morgan,” Griff said. “What else would you have him do? Send another group into the woods to be ambushed? Leave the caravan to hunt them down?”
Morgan didn’t like any of the answers, but he had to admit that the commander had no other options than to carry on. Morgan looked to the priest, Orto, who looked similarly dissatisfied, his beefy features molded into a frown, and his mouth opening and closing as if about to say more, then thinking better of it.
The column resumed movement along the road, the soldiers nervously brandishing their weapons and scanning the forest as they moved. Lord Connall maintained a strong face at the head of the column, his back straight as ever, his face set into hard lines. He didn’t so much as flinch when a twig snapped somewhere in the bushes. He would bark at the troops to keep proper formation occasionally, his voice never wavering. His cool composure reassured Morgan, and was perhaps all that kept the more green soldiers from breaking formation and running. The mist grew thicker as they moved deeper into the woods, obscuring their view so that they could see but a few cubits into the trees. After nearly a bell of no contact with the attackers, the soldiers relaxed a little, only to be brought violently back into the terror of the forest by a high pitched woman’s scream.
Lord Connall’s horse reared and he bellowed at the priest Orto, “By Cephas, why must I sit idly by now? Those brigands have a woman captive, perhaps from a nearby village. God only knows what depravity will befall her!”
“I beseech you not to, your lordship,” Orto’s husky voice pleaded. “You cannot leave the carts unprotected! You could never find the poor woman in any case. Not in this fog.”
Morgan shared his commander’s sentiment, if only to avenge Lara and the others that had been killed. He hoped that Lord Connall would change his mind and give the order for the soldiers to head into the forest and attack. Now that he was away from the beasts he felt more sure of himself and that the assembled soldiers could destroy their enemy.
“I know this as well as you, father.” Lord Connall brandished his sword menacingly and fidgeted anxiously in his saddle. “But how it irks me that I must stay here when a maiden is in need! By my honour I wish it were not so!”
Orto grabbed Lord Connall’s arm. “But of course, that is what they intend, my lord! The evil that we face is trying to goad you into leaving the sacred scriptures of the Stevene unprotected!”
“Or the gold and kind unprotected, more likely!” Lord Connall scowled.
The caravan continued on despite the exchange between priest and lord. Morgan jumped every time a scream broke through the night, or breaking rocks echoed through the forest. The column felt as if it were moving impossibly slow as it made its way through the forest. Morgan wished that whoever was out there would attack, or begone if that was not their plan. Moving along the road through the mist, tormented by the sounds coming from the woods, was a thousand times worse than the terror of combat. After another bell’s travel, the sounds and wind abruptly stopped, and the forest became silent. Instinctively, Lord Connall signalled for the wagons to stop, and scanned the trees intently.
“Be ready,” he whispered.
Suddenly, the caravan was under attack. Dark shapes swooped between the trees in near silence and descended on the soldiers. Morgan shouted in surprise, so suddenly did the attackers appear. Immediately, the night sky was filled with the sounds of battle as blades clanged against one another, and the fallen cried out in pain.
The soldiers’ formation disintegrated into total chaos. Black shapes moved all about Morgan, so quickly that by the time his sword swung towards one it only met air. A soldier next to him screamed in agony as his arm was hacked off, and blood from it splattered Morgan’s face. The man’s cries were cut short with a gurgling gasp, however, as a lance impaled him through the mouth and out the back of his head.
The creature that had slain the man was gone before Morgan could mount an attack of his own. As Morgan dodged a black horse galloping past, he caught sight of Bayard pinned to one of the wagons by a spear. Morgan rushed to his friend’s side, where Jakob was taking refuge. Then a blur swooped past Morgan and Jakob’s head was off, a dark horseman standing beside the body. Morgan held his sword out in front of him as if to ward off the creature and thought, “Maybe the priest is right! Maybe these are creatures of the dead!”
“Bastards!” Lord Connall screamed as his horse charged past Morgan and towards the creature that had slain Jakob. The lord attacked with confidence and zeal, sending the creature flying from its horse. The mount promptly fled into the trees.
“Morgan,” Bayard croaked as he weakly clutched at Morgan’s tabard, pulling his attention from Lord Connall. “I think the priest was right about more than one thing …”
“Save your breath,” Morgan said.
“No,” Bayard continued to speak. “It’s too late for me now. But not for you …”
Bayard’s hand slipped from Morgan’s tunic and fell limply beside him, as he convulsed one last time, and died. Morgan stared in disbelief and horror at the body of his friend, eyes rolled into the back of his skull and blood trickling from his slackened mouth.
“Bayard!” Morgan shook his friend. “No!”
Suddenly a dark shape bore down on Morgan, and he narrowly evaded another spear thrust. Regaining his balance, he took a swing of his own. This time his blade met something, and he chopped again. Griff rushed to Morgan’s side brandishing a pike, and drove the weapon into the beast as it tried a second time to charge with its spear. The creature made no sound, but as Morgan hacked at it again with his blade, the brute slumped sideways and began to fall from its horse.
“Die, you son of a whore!” Griff cried, pulling his pike free then stabbing the dark rider with it again, then moving to Morgan’s side for the next attack.
Another of the attackers rode past Morgan to the rear, and he whirled about to confront it, only to see that the dark riders were galloping away from the carts and into the forest.
“They’re broken! After them!” Lord Connall screamed, his sword and face streaming with blood. “Derkqvist, you stay here with the standard bearer, and three others.”
“Griff grab one other person,” Morgan said. “Louen, you’ll stay here, too.”
“The rest of you, with me!” The lord charged into the woods after the fleeing creatures, with several soldiers in his wake.
“Your lordship!” Orto shouted, but he was not heard.
In the sudden quiet following the departure of the creatures, Morgan scanned the area. The wagons were unharmed, save for the lead one, which had obviously been hacked at by an axe. Orto stood next to it, clutching his precious book to his chest.
“I knew they were after the scripture,” Orto said, gesturing to the wrecked cart. “Look at what they’ve done!”
Morgan inspected the cart, and was pleased to see that it was not too damaged to travel. “If they sought your precious tome, priest, then why didn’t they kill *you* for it?”
Orto muttered something about Stevene’s Light and waddled away from the damaged wagon.
“Where are the bodies?” Griff said.
“What?” Morgan wheeled about to see his friend leaning on his pike and looking about the remarkably empty clearing.
“I’d swear by Ol’s blood that we felled at least four of the beasts. And they certainly took a few of ours, but look: not one body!”
Morgan looked about and realised that indeed, there were no bodies at all. Even poor Bayard, whose corpse had been pinned to the centre wagon by a spear, was gone, only blood and a small hole in the side of the cart gave evidence that he had ever been near it.
“Why Bayard?” Morgan asked no one in particular.
“There are evil powers afoot here, my children!” Orto shambled back into view, bearing his tome as if it were a shield against the creatures. “We must pray to God for His protection.”
A loud crack intoned from somewhere deep in the forest, followed by screams. It was hard to tell whether they belonged to men or women, but they were no less terrifying for it.
“What do we do now?” Louen cried. “Lord Connall’s gone! We’re done for!”
“Grab hold of yourself, boy!” Griff shouted.
“No, he’s right Griff,” said another of the soldiers with them. “We’re trapped out here with those things! Alone!”
Morgan forced the images of Lara’s and Bayard’s deaths from his mind and turned to confront the troops that remained with the caravan. “We still have weapons, do we not? We can fend for ourselves.”
“I’m for making a stand here and killing those whoresons when they come back!” Griff said.
“No!” Louen shouted. “Let’s just get out of here! Let the demons take the wagons!”
For a moment, Morgan froze. He knew that he had been given command of this small group, but did he deserve it? He asked himself the question again and again. He had let Lara, then Bayard die. If he couldn’t even save his friends, how could he save these others? He could hear his father’s voice in the back of his mind berating him as weak, and especially damned for not following God in this predicament. Suddenly he realised that he was being as hard on himself as his father had been. It filled him with anger. “I was rid of that bastard when I left home! I won’t let him control me now!”
The assembled soldiers quarrelled amongst themselves, which did little to calm him. “Be silent, all of you! We keep going and get out of this bastardly forest as quick as we can! *With* the wagons! Now let’s get moving.”
Orto hurried along the road with the caravan that thankfully moved through the forest with a sense of urgency. Orto wanted nothing better than to get away from the dark trees and ominous mist as swiftly as possible. He had seen more bloodshed this one night than any human had any need to see in ten lifetimes. When the evil demons had attacked the caravan, Orto had hidden inside the wagon bearing the holy scriptures, clutching them to himself. He felt ashamed for hiding while the soldiers died outside the cart, but he was no soldier, and would have done little good.
He shuddered as he thought of screams that he had heard while inside the wagon. They had borne more pain and suffering than any person deserved to feel. He felt almost as if he himself had been pierced in the heart by one of the demons’ lances. He knew fellow priests and monks that had accompanied Baranur’s armies as healers in the war with the Beinison Empire. He could not imagine how immeasurably more horrible their experiences must have been.
A sudden gust of wind made Orto nearly jump from the saddle of his pony, and the soldiers around him jerked when the wind was accompanied by a snapping twig not far off. The boy Louen broke formation and started to run, but Morgan grabbed him and barked some orders that appeared to calm the others. It seemed only a matter of time, however, before the soldiers’ dread would get the best of them, Orto feared. At the very least, he knew that he was near his breaking point. But he also knew the group would only escape the forest alive with God’s blessing, so he stayed. As a priest, it was up to Orto to help the soldiers find the grace they needed.
“Only through the Stevene’s Light will we survive, my children,” he piped up. “Let us pray to God for his blessing.”
Louen nodded his head vigorously, but Morgan turned on the priest. “Be silent, you! I don’t need you making these troops any more scared than they are!”
“I seek to calm them,” Orto said.
“Just be quiet.”
“Your conscience weighs heavily upon you, my son,” Orto said. “You are not to blame for your friends’ deaths, but you must not make their loss be in vain.”
“What are you talking about, old man?”
“May God have mercy on their souls, but I fear they were not ready –”
“Enough of your religious wind, priest!” Morgan grabbed the sacred text from Orto’s arms and hurled it as far as he could into the forest.
“Cephas’ boot!” Orto exclaimed, his body stiffening with terror. He watched the book fly through the air, time seemingly slowing down. As the tome slowly twirled in the air into the bushes, Orto could only think that this wasn’t possibly happening. When he heard the book hit the ground some way into the forest, time returned to normal and the reality set in. Orto was dismayed that anyone, even Morgan who clearly hated the Stevenic faith, could do such a thing. “What have you done?”
Not waiting for a response, Orto hopped off of Hubris’ back, and scuttled into the woods as quickly as his stout legs would carry him. What had the boy done? By the good God he could still scarcely believe it. Didn’t he know that they were all done for if the creatures captured the Stevene’s most sacred words? To say nothing of the indignity that Morgan had inflicted upon the holy script.
The underbrush quickly became very thick once Orto was off the road. Hardly a few cubits into the trees and Orto’s pace was slowed to a crawl, as bushes and burs clutched at his long robes, and rotting logs crumbled underfoot. He cursed as his sleeve became hooked on a branch that jutted out from a nearby tree. He pulled it free and continued through the foliage. The forest seemed to clutch and grab at him, holding him back from retrieving the text. Orto began to get frustrated, then angry. Of all the things that could have happened! Maybe it was his own fault, Orto thought, that Morgan had flung the book into the trees, for in his inability to properly say what his intentions were, he had insulted the soldier.
He came to a dense gathering of trees, such that there was no path between them without passing through the branches. But there was nothing for it — he had to press on. Lowering his head and covering it with his arms, Orto pushed through the tree branches. Every moment counted, and he hadn’t the time to go around. As far as he knew, the dark riders were upon him, moving silently towards the sacred scriptures. Certainly, all was going according to their evil plan. They had managed to draw Lord Connall away from the caravan, and had hardened Morgan’s heart until the tome was completely unprotected. Orto himself had perhaps been a pawn in their plot even, by accidentally antagonising Morgan.
“No, not completely unprotected, Lord,” Orto prayed aloud. “Your humble servant still — turdation!”
He tripped over a fallen tree and was sent sprawling right onto his face. Fortunately, he landed in a small clearing covered in moss and was unhurt. He rolled onto his back and lay there panting. He was unused to such physical stress, and his body complained loudly for what he was putting it through. His heart thudded painfully in his chest, and his breath came out a wheeze. While catching his breath Orto gazed up through the clearing in the trees at a sky that now bore a few stars. The mist played about him, obscuring his view, but he was still aware of the beauty of the night sky. Slowly, his anger seeped out of his mind, and was replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.
“By Stevene’s blood, I’ll find the text!” he exclaimed, and turned on his side to heft himself up. He stopped dead as the sound of large creatures crashing through the bushes not far away reached his ears. “Cephas! They are upon us!”
Orto remained on the ground, not daring to breathe as two man-shaped shadows tramped within a few cubits of his position. They appeared not to notice him however, and continued on. Orto breathed a sigh of relief, and was about to get up again when his eye caught a strangely angular object lying in a bush nearby. He crawled over to it and pulled the thing from the branches.
“Praise be to God!” he whispered. “The scriptures are here, and unharmed. I worship your wondrous ways, lord, that you clouded the creatures’ minds that they did not find me and your most holy words.”
Orto hefted himself up with the aid of a nearby tree and tried to get his bearings once again. He realised that he had no idea which direction the road was in. He had gone in several circles while searching for the book and had completely lost his bearings. He listened intently to the night sounds, but could not hear the clatter of the wagons. Clutching the book to his chest, he uttered a quick prayer. “Guide me, Cephas.”
He then began stumbling through the forest once again, whispering prayers to himself as he did so. He stepped on a rotting tree stump and tumbled to the ground when it crumbled beneath his foot, but did not pause before getting up, determined as he was to reach the soldiers and protect them with the holy aura of the book he carried. Surely the book carried supernatural powers, as it had prevented the dark riders from detecting him, and had kept Orto safe all this night. After what seemed several leagues of travel through the forest, Orto was forced to stop for a rest, despite his desire to go on. He leaned up against a tree, and forcefully tried to slow his breathing. Not far to his right, he heard a loud cry.
“Ol protect us!”
Orto stood up abruptly. Surely the servants of darkness would not invoke the name of Ol, creator-god to those who believed in the Olean pantheon? Pagans, to be sure, but certainly a worshipper of Ol would not be in league with such evil. Before continuing, Orto listened some more, and his ears were met by the sound of violent retching, and coughing.
With a deep breath, Orto plunged through the trees in the direction of the sounds. He made a horrible racket as he travelled, and when he crashed from the forest onto the road he nearly impaled himself on the end of a pike, wielded by a pale-faced Dargonian soldier.
“Illiena’s eyes!” the man said. “Father, I thought you were one of them!”
Orto did not reply, however, as he was paralysed at the sight before him. On a tree branch that hung over the road, several heads hung from ropes, blood forming in a pool darker than the road beneath them. A couple of the soldiers still remained at the side of the road, their backs to Orto, emptying their bodies of everything their stomachs held. Orto thought he himself might vomit, but took solace in the comforting weight of the book in his arms. He at least knew why he had not heard the carts moving: they had been stopped by this terrible sight.
The soldier with the pike turned to the others and shouted, “Chins up lads! Father Orto has returned to us unharmed! Surely his God is with him this night!”
The soldiers looked up, and Louen crawled over to Orto and embraced him. “The Stevene’s Light shines on you, father!” he cried.
Orto patted the boy on the head, but fixed his gaze upon Morgan. Orto was not pleased with him, but could not think of anything appropriate to say. Morgan fidgeted uncomfortably then turned to look at the disembodied heads hanging from the tree branch before him. “Cut those down, and let’s get moving!”
“We’re through taking orders from you, Morgan,” Louen got up abruptly and stalked over to the larger soldier. “You left the priest to die out there! Luckily for you he lived!”
“Be silent, you,” Morgan said. “You’re just a boy, what do you know? Besides, you should be grateful I took you with me otherwise you’d be dead by now for sure. It’s a wonder you’ve lived this long!”
“That’s enough Morgan,” Griff said. “I’m not questioning your command here, but the priest did –”
“Well, I am!” another soldier said, adding her voice to the argument. “I’m through with you, too, Morgan! God is with Father Orto; we will follow him!”
Morgan didn’t say anything as he got up and cut the heads down from the tree himself. Orto felt a pang of guilt at the sight of Morgan’s treatment at the hands of the other soldiers. He was not an evil lad, and Orto bore him no grudge.
“No, Morgan is your rightful leader,” Orto said. “He was appointed by Lord Connall thus, and thus he shall stay. I can but give spiritual guidance.”
“Guide us out of this forest,” Morgan said, his eyes downcast. “I will follow.”
From then on, the caravan moved along at a slower pace with the priest, Orto, at its head, brandishing his book like a weapon, and chanting loudly. Morgan had to admit that the priest showed a certain amount of leadership that was needed in this situation. Morgan had led the group the best way he knew: by being honest with them. That had worked to keep them in line, but the priest’s superstition had another effect. His incantations and hymns seemed to make the soldiers less scared, and helped keep formation because of that; not because Orto would shout at them if they did break. Morgan could see the value in that approach. Perhaps spirituality wasn’t all bad, for here was an aspect he had never seen before. Whether the singing was bringing divine protection or not, it would help the soldiers escape the forest.
There was more to it than just that, though. The hymns the priest sang touched something within Morgan, and despite the situation, calmed him. Morgan had never heard such incantations in the small church he had attended as a boy. Lara had told him of the choruses that would reach beyond the walls of the monastery in Fennell, but hearing of and experiencing were two totally different things. Poor Lara …
Morgan thought at length about his life as the wagons trundled along behind the priest and his chants. Lara and Bayard were both dead. What was it Bayard had said to Louen? “Youth is for having fun and adventure. Go grovelling to Stevene when you’re an old man.” But what if you didn’t survive to be an old man? Then you would die as the priest had said they had: unprepared. But unprepared for what? *Was* there some higher power out there?
But then what of Morgan’s father? He had been so concerned with being ready to die that he had never lived, and never let Morgan live either. He had been so concerned with living right that he had no love left over for Morgan. Morgan decided that was the reason he had hated his father so much and the faith that he had adhered to. Morgan had been raised without any encouragement or any kindness. Maybe it was time to finally put that behind him and stop doing things just because they went against what his father would have wanted …
Several bells later, Orto and Morgan sat side-by-side on a small knoll just less than a league outside the forest. From there, Morgan had a good view of that nightmare place from which they had escaped. From the outside it looked much less menacing than before. The other soldiers milled about the wagons, waiting anxiously for the return of Lord Connall and the rest of their fellows.
It was still night, but outside the forest the stars and the moon could cast their light unobstructed, and it seemed a different world from the one they had been in not long before. The mists did not continue much outside of the forest, and where Morgan rested all was clear.
“Father,” Morgan hesitated before continuing on. “I, uh … want to thank you for helping us escape the forest. I think I believe now that if it wasn’t for you we may have never made it out alive.”
“No, my son,” the priest laid a comforting hand on Morgan’s shoulder. “I did nothing. It was God who protected us.”
“I’m still not sure I believe in God, father.”
“Do not trouble yourself unduly over it, my son. Faith will come in time. Like anything, it must be learned. Think of God as a friend you’ve never met, and the Stevene as a friend who will introduce you to him.”
“I know a little of your religion, but the version I was shown was a much different one than yours. The only time I ever prayed was when forced,” Morgan said. “You have shown me a different side. Your patience with my insults showed me that. I am sorry for treating you poorly. I think I used you as a target for my feelings toward another Stevenic I know …”
“I fear that there are some sects that are … rather more strict than mine. But when thinking of Stevenism, remember this only: there is one God, and the Stevene’s Light is the candle that illuminates our path to that God. That will get you started, for the rest are details. But above all, live a good life. A good pagan is more likely to enter God’s kingdom than an evil Stevenic.”
Morgan nodded, and contented himself in just sitting in silence with the priest a while. He was startled by the sound of hoofs and feet approaching, and looked up to see a man on a horse followed by several human shapes on foot following behind. Could it be Lord Connall and the others?
The rider quickened the horse’s pace to a canter, and approached the caravan. Orto stood to greet the approaching warrior, who it was now apparent, was indeed Lord Connall. He laughed as he approached, and threw down a black cloak and a spear at the priest’s feet.
“Ha ha!” he shouted, a huge grin covering his face. “I told you it was but a few bandits, father! Why, we butchered them like cattle! A fitting end for those who would try to steal that which rightfully belongs to the king!”
“Your justice was indeed swift and merciless, your lordship,” Orto said.
“As befits such dregs,” Lord Connall replied. “We lost them initially, but we found them again, in their camp no less! What of the duke’s tribute? Morgan?”
“It is safe, your lordship,” Morgan replied.
“Good, good!” Lord Connall laughed again, then wheeled his horse about to address the troops that had now assembled near the carts. “Sleep well, troops. You deserve it. We’ll travel to Valdasly on the morrow, where we’ll rest for a few days before continuing on to Magnus.”
Once the young lord had gone to tend his horse and his armour, Orto turned once again to Morgan. “I do not believe the brigands your commander so easily overpowered were the same creatures that attacked us.”
Morgan wasn’t so sure either, and was glad to know that Orto would be with them for the rest of the trip.