Sunday, 9 July 2017

Where the Moonlight Dances - Part I

It feels like forever since I've released a story. For that, I apologise. I've been wading through the waist-deep mud of thesis writing for the last few months and, although I have more time to dedicate to writing than I did this time last year, it's not much of an increase.

I decided to do something slightly different for this short(ish) story. As those of you who follow this blog regularly will know, I am currently nearing the end of my Masters degree, and have been extensively writing about and researching Anglo-Saxon and medieval English attitudes towards death and the afterlife. Heavily inspired by what I have learned over the past few months, I decided to write about something that leans away from Esdarian politics and towards belief.

Part two will be released on Sunday the 16th of July.

‘There will be a time for grieving, but it isn’t now.’
            ‘Lucien, please…’
            The dark-haired, swarthy-faced man shook his head and put a hand on the fiery-haired woman’s shoulder. ‘Not now. We need you level-headed.’
            Katrina closed her dark-green eyes, took a deep breath and stood up. Aldem’s body was still warm – whether it was the residual life left inside him or the heat from the torches in the cellar, she could not tell. His face was eerie still; somewhere between asleep and thoughtful - clean, too. Henry did a wonderful job. It’s a shame about the rest.
            ‘We shall bury him as soon as we can,’ Henry said from behind Katrina. He had sunk into the shadows the moment Katrina had arrived, the old medic knew well not to interfere. ‘It’s not safe at the moment, though.’ He stepped forwards and pulled the shroud down over Aldem’s face.
As Katrina watched the silver-haired priest of the Old Gods whisper a silent prayer for her brother’s soul, she remembered the wounds done to the rest of him, hidden beneath the burial shroud. Those imperial bastards, she thought. They will pay.
They were coming to reclaim Westmoor. For two years, Emperor Lyshir III had sat on his haunches. He had watched as King Aelfurd’s rebellion had stalled at the border to the Imperial Heartlands, the momentum from the unprecedented victories won in the first year and a half of the rebellion spent. The emperor had recalled his soldiers from other fronts, bolstered by Altmerian veterans, and sent them to guard the Imperial Heartland’s western border. And he had watched. And he had waited.
Now, for reasons unknown to Katrina, Emperor Lyshir III was sending his troops to reclaim Westmoor – and, no doubt, Maedar and the rest of the Free Kingdoms beyond. She and her brother – the warmth slowly going from his flesh, at her feet in the dingy cellar – had been scouts sent by King Aelfurd’s armies to watch the border with the Heartlands. For weeks they had gazed towards the legendary Westwarden Castle and wondered if the emperor could even be bothered with the Free Kingdoms anymore.
Then, two days ago, they had been awoken from where they slept beneath an enormous pine tree by a rumble like thunder. Katrina and her brother had watched with horror as a great mass of soldiers – tens of thousands in number, beetle-like in their black, carapace-like armour – swarmed across the River Sayn like a thick black fog.
She and Aldhem had mounted their horses and sped back to the village of Witherwood – so called because it was surrounded by an unruly mass of centuries-dead trees that the locals believed to be haunted by the spirit of an old witch – slightly to the north-west of the River Sayn. However, during their flight, they had been set upon by a small group of Vidorian advance scouts. Aldhem had been struck by four arrows before he had fallen from his horse and broken his arm. Despite that, he had still drawn his sword and fought off two of the attackers.
Katrina had killed two of the soliders and run the others off before dragging her brother onto her horse and riding as hard as she could. There was nothing that could be done though – Aldhem had been dead long before she had made it was to Witherwood.
She turned away from his body, wiping the tears from her eyes, and looked through the darkness of the cellar in the eyes of the stony-faced at Captain Lucien. ‘Alright,’ she said with a deep intake of breath. ‘What do we do about the Empire?’
Lucien was young for a veteran soldier. The youngest son of a minor noble, he had risen quickly in the ranks during the rebellion. His stubble-brushed cheeks and dark eyes were shadowy in the gloom of the cellar, but the shining steel armour he wore glinted. ‘With some luck, the bulk of the imperial invasion force will bypass us here. I have only one-hundred men in my command as it is.’ He turned and walked towards the stone steps leading out of the cellar, Katrina rushing to follow him.
‘And if they do?’ she asked as they made their way into the low tavern which was packed full of Maedarian soldiers and farmers alike.
Lucien shook his head. ‘They may send a small force,’ he said as he skirted around one of the benches, ‘but I doubt whoever commands them will redirect their entire army to kill us. If they know we are here, they will no-doubt know how many of us there are – the emperor would not have launched this attack unless he was certain. We should expect to be outnumbered, so we must use the village to our advantage.’
Katrina frowned, her hand brushing the sword she kept at her hip as they left the tavern through its door and stepped out into the dreary grey day outside. ‘Surely, then, it’s best to just leave?’ she asked.
Captain Lucien turned and caught Katrina’s eye, his glare cold. ‘And go back to a life under the Empire’s fist? No.’
‘But the villagers-…’
‘Katrina,’ Lucien said coldly, ‘we may be friends, but I am your captain. Do not forget that.’
She fell silent, staring hard into Lucien’s young face. ‘Aye, Sir,’ she said through her teeth. I hate it when he does this.
Katrina had known Lucien for years. She was the daughter of the head housekeeper at Lucien’s small family estate, and was a similar age to the dark-haired, swarthy young captain. Though Aldhem was a few years older than Katrina, and had been eyed up for a position in Lucien’s father’s guard from a young age, Katrina got on better with Lucien than her brother did. Ever since he could speak, though, Lucien had always been quick to remind Katrina of his position over her. Whenever she had called him out on it in the past, he had laughed it off. “Someone needs to keep your rebellious streak in-check!” he would say. “Your brother can’t have both his eyes on you all the time!”
Now Aldhem had neither of his eyes on Katrina. He was dead, and it was just Lucien and her. Katrina glared at the back of Lucien’s steel breastplate as he marched down the grotty, night-rain dampened road that ran through Witherwood’s small village centre. The pathway was worsened by the dozens of feet that walked up and down the road, as soldiers and peasants both went about their business, preparing for a potential attack by the Empire.
Katrina saw fear in the faces of the peasants, but not in the eyes of the Maedarians. They were assured of their victory. Songs about the success of the rebellion in Palvia were still sung around the campfires that sprung up between the many tents that ringed the village every night – songs that echoed in the eerie woods around the village.
Katrina shivered.
Reaching high above the few meagre, thatched buildings of the shabby little settlement were the trees for which the village was named: pale-white, bereft of leaves, even untouched by moss and ivy. Around their twisted roots, even the heather and bracken that covered swathes of Westmoor seemed reluctant to grow. Katrina hated the way the Maedarian’s victory songs and warming torchlight died in the shadows of the twisted boughs.
‘Alright,’ Katrina said, swallowing her pride and hurrying down the road to catch Lucien, ‘what do you propose we do?’
‘Easy,’ Lucien said, a small smile on his lips, ‘we fight them in the woods.’
Katrina frowned. ‘How will that help?’ she said.
Lucien’s smile widened to a cruel grin. ‘The Empire will no-doubt surround the village, as if to besiege it. Then, they will advance, but they will have to move through the woods. When they do so, their formations will beak, their soldier will be disorganised, and we can strike.’
Katrina was unsure. She paused in the middle of the rain-dampened road and folded her arms across the chainmail shirt she wore. ‘I don’t know,’ she said slowly. ‘It seems a bit-…’
‘It will be an honourable victory,’ Lucien said, walking away. ‘And remember, I am your captain.’
Katrina ground her teeth but said nothing. She had things to do. Important things to do.


For all its flaws – its rancid air, its eerie surrounding trees, the constant chill that hung over it –the village of Witherwood had a great many places to hide. Each of the small, thatched houses and every alleyway that ran between them had places one could lurk or hide small caches of contraband – even the well had a small nook just inside the rim large enough to stash small items.
            Katrina waited in one such nook as the afternoon drew near, her fiery hair hidden by the hood of her cloak. Nestled between two low houses and obscured from the view of the main road by a pile of old rubbish, she sat, covered by her ragged, dark old cloak, and waited. Now is a good time, she thought. With all the chaos thrown up in preparation for a possible attack from the Empire, no-one will notice if I slip away for a few moments.
            Beyond the alley in which she squatted, Katrina could hear the rumble of activity: men and women were coming and going, desperately doing what they could to ready themselves for the possible assault from the Empire. We should be leaving, Katrina thought. We’re doing nothing holding this village. This is all about honour – Lucien thinks this is his big moment.
            As she waited, quietly brooding to herself, a whistling wind broke through the phalanx of shadowy, dead trees that ringed the village and kissed her cheeks with its icy lips. Katrina found her eyes drawn to the pale, twisted trees. She shivered – not because of the cold.
            A few moments later, the sound of shuffling feet came from the far end of the alley. ‘Hello?’ a voice said.
            ‘Oh, not again!’ Katrina leapt to her feet and hurried towards the voice. ‘May, I told you to send Borret!’
            The woman at the end of the alley seemed as ancient as the twisted old trees that ringed the village. Her form was hunched and frail, draped in filthy rags, and long, grey-white hair fell around her face – out of which two blind eyes stared sightlessly.
            ‘He’s grabbing what he can from the fields, dear Kat,’ the ancient, blind woman said, leaning heavily on the long, worn stick she held. ‘Dockie’s worried that the Empire will burn what’s left of his barley should they come through.’
            Katrina sighed but made no further objection. ‘Here,’ Katrina said quietly, reaching under her cloak. ‘I couldn’t get as much as last time, but I hope it helps.’
            Katrina took a hard, crusty loaf of staling bread out from under her cloak and placed it in the old blind woman’s hands. The bread was taken from the Maedarian foodstores, kept in the basement of one of the larger houses in the village. Katrina had stolen it.
            ‘You mustn’t keep doing this,’ the thin old woman said, fixing her grey, blind eyes on Katrina. ‘If they catch you-…’
            ‘They won’t. Take it to your grandchildren.’
            ‘Dear Kat…’
            The old woman’s wrinkled lips drew across her face. ‘Thank-you,’ she said. ‘I hope I didn’t keep you long.’
            Katrina shook her head. ‘The others already came by. You were the last. Everything I had is gone now. You should bar your door tonight, May: the Empire might attack.’
            The old lady tucked the bread into her ragged clothes. ‘Empire don’t scare me none,’ she said with a wheezy chuckle. ‘Only the Lady o’ the Woods puts the chill o’ death into my bones.’
            ‘Really?’ Katrina even managed to laugh. ‘That old folk-tale?’
            ‘It’s no tale, Dear Kat,’ Old May said, her grey, sightless eyes turning towards the twisted tips of the branches that ringed the village, as if drawn that way. ‘I’ve heard her cries; seen her shadowy face in my dreams.’
            Katrina rolled her eyes and gently put a hand on the old woman’s shoulder. ‘Maybe so,’ she said, ‘but if the Empire are to attack today or sometime tonight, I would fear their steel more than the Lady of the Woods appearing in your dreams.’
            Old May made a noise that existed somewhere between a gasp and a snigger which Katrina could not distinguish. ‘Westmoor is old, Dear Kat,’ she said slowly. ‘There are many things here that go unexplained. The fires o’ the Empire drove the Old Gods out of the Heartlands, but they’ve always lingered in Westmoor and beyond.’
Katrina watched as the old woman shuffled away. Again, she found her eyes drawn to the tall, twisted trees that ringed Witherwood. She had known of the Lady of the Woods since they first arrived: she had been about to step under the trees for a rest when a local farmhand had stopped her, wide-eyed and pale faced, as if he himself had just seen the supposed spirit that haunted the place. “You mustn’t,” he had said. “You’ll anger the Lady. You don’t want to anger the Lady.”
Katrina had never once seen the so-called Lady, but her name was uttered in whispers in the local area. It was said that she was a witch who lived hundreds of years ago, sworn to the Old Gods. When the Empire had swept across Westmoor in the first years of the Second Age, she had been brutally executed and her body had been tossed into the woods. Ever since, her spirit had wandered, taking vengeance on anyone who entered the ring-like scattering of trees that circled the settlement.
Not for a moment did Katrina believe a word of the folklore, but she had quickly realised that the spirit of the Lady was important to the villagers, and that there was no point in upsetting them – especially since she had known they would be in Witherwood for a while. Still, as she thought about the Lady of the Woods, she felt a cold finger of fear trace her spine and she shivered again.
She pushed all thoughts of the supernatural from her mind and quickly brushed the hard, residual crumbs from inside her cloak. She had no doubts about the fury which Lucien would direct at her should it be discovered that she had been stealing from the soldiers’ stores to feed the poor of Witherwood, but Katrina had felt as if she had to do something. We’re putting such a strain on their way of life, she told herself as she quickly walked from the alley and re-joined the hubbub of the main road into the village. She stepped around Maedarian soldiers in mail tunics carrying swords and spears, making her way towards the village centre. The poorest can’t cope; there aren’t enough resources to go around. Let us not become like the Empire. We need to take care of these people-…
Katrina froze, gripped suddenly by fear.
‘Kat!’ Lucien’s voice came again, followed by footsteps and a hand on her shoulder and spun her around. Katrina looked into the eyes of her old friend; she could not tell if they were concerned or angry. ‘Where have you been?’
Lucien waved a hand. ‘It doesn’t matter, we need to prepare.’ He beckoned for her to follow him through the crowd of Maedarian soldiers and Westmoorian peasants towards the tiny village forge. ‘I sent out scouts at dawn,’ he said as he pushed his way through a crowd of soldiers sharpening their blades, ‘and the news is…’ he trailed off, pausing for thought. ‘The news is good, I think.’
‘Oh?’ Katrina said, following in Lucien’s steps. ‘How so?’
They arrived at the tiny village forge, which was manned by an old, one-handed smith, brawny as a bull and bald as an egg, and his bleary-eyed, greasy-haired son. The two men were working hard over their low-burning forge and worn anvil, doing everything they could to assist the Medarian rebels in preparing. Torrin Twist-Hand did little more than grunt at Katrina when she and Lucien entered the low, stiflingly hot forge, but his son, Welf, stared at Katrina as he always did – his lips parted and his eyes wide. You’d think he’d never seen a woman before, she thought, ignoring his stare.
‘Torrin,’ Lucien said, ‘my sword?’
‘In the pile,’ the enormous blacksmith said, not looking up from the enormous iron chain he was working on and pointing to a collection of old weapon racks lined up by the wall. ‘Good blade. Keep us safe with it.’
‘Lucien,’ Katrina said, interrupting. ‘What’s this good news?’
Lucien crossed to the weapon racks and picked out a shining longsword. He tested the edge with his fingers then nodded appreciatively. ‘The Empire is coming,’ he said without looking up. ‘I sent out Leofwin and Harrit at dawn. They say a detachment has been sent towards Witherwood. They counted some three-hundred being led by a lord, no-less.’
Katrina’s eyes widened. ‘That’s good news?’ she hissed. ‘Three-hundred, Lucien, we’re outnumbered three-to-one, and we have innocent folk here!’
Lucien shrugged. ‘We know their tactics. We can prepare. This will be a glorious hour for us.’
‘What?’ she breathed in shock. ‘Lucien, we should be leaving! Not preparing for a fight! Witherwood holds no tactical advantage for the rebellion; it’s an outpost, and one the Empire can snatch away at a moment’s notice!’
‘Leave?’ Lucien said, still eyeing his sword. ‘Why would we do that? This is our moment of triumph! We can cut a lump out of the Empire’s reclamation force before it’s reclaimed anything! Think of the damage it’ll do to the Empire’s morale, when they learn how their superior force was slaughtered by a handful of devout Maedarians!’
Katrina shook her head in disbelief. ‘You can’t be serious,’ she said. ‘You’d jeopardise all our lives – even those of the innocent folk here – just in the name of swiping some easy honour?’
Lucien glanced up from his sword for a moment, his brow creased. ‘Torrin,’ he said, ‘do you want the Empire to come back?’
The smith snorted. ‘No,’ he said before dousing a blade he had been hammering at in a vat of water. ‘Useless folk; did nothin’ for us, paid no heed to our way of life. All about conquest and that gods-be-damned so-called Divine Empress of theirs.’ He spat. ‘Pittance to tha’, I say.’
‘See, Kat?’ Lucien twirled the sword in his hand. ‘We are wanted here; the folk want us to fight for their freedom-…’
‘No,’ Katrina snarled, ‘Torrin wants us to stay and fight because the Empire cut his hand off!’
‘She ain’t wrong,’ the big smith said with a half-laugh.
Katrina barred her teeth and stepped forwards whilst Torrin Twist-Hand’s hammer rang out on his anvil, and beside him, Welf muttered away to himself. ‘What are you playing at, Lucien? She demanded. ‘The Empire will just burn the village down and-…’
Lucien rammed his sword into its sheath and rounded on Katrina. ‘Kat, I know what I’m doing,’ he hissed. ‘I know how the Empire fight, and I will remind you that I-…’
‘Yes, yes;’ Katrina snarled, spinning on her heel and turning to leave, ‘you’re my bloody captain – and I’m supposed to take you seriously, even though I can remember when you used to eat the snot out of your nose.’
Katrina!’ Lucien yelled. ‘Don’t you walk away from me, I am your captain and I order you to-…’
But she was already gone. Katrina marched out into the road beyond the forge, seething with anger. Your honour, she thought, that’s all this is about. You think this is your moment; that songs will be sung about you and your heroism against the Empire: of how the brave captain, outnumbered three-to-one, held out against an imperial onslaught.
She walked down the main road, her face twisted with fury, towards the entrance to the village. The muddy road had been churned up even more in the last few hours by the coming-and-going of hundreds of feet, and Katrina soon found her heavy boots filthy. She walked to the edge of the village, where the white fingers of the dead trees’ boughs intertwined over the road like a skeletal arch, and stopped, glaring at the south-eastern horizon.
How dare he risk us all over honour? she thought as she watched the dull, grey rainclouds slowly drift southwards, carried on a bitter wind. How dare he? Before her, Westmoor was dark and foreboding: dry brackens and heathers covered the hardy moorland, between which small fields peppered with peasants hastily gathering what remained of the year’s harvest for fear of it being destroyed by the Empire.
It was then Katrina realised that, for the first time since her brother had died, she was alone. Suddenly, drowned within the sounds of activity – the bell-like toll of Twist-Hand’s anvil, the yelling of voices preparing for the worst, and the rumble of feet – Katrina was overcome. She staggered as tears began to pour from her eyes, a phantom hand at her throat, choking her on her grief.
He was really gone. Aldem was really dead. She had refused to believe it, even when she had seen the gravity of his terrible wounds – the arrow that had gone all the way through his chest, the other that had severed an artery in his side – and even when Henry had told her he was dead. Even when she saw him lying in the cellar, so peaceful, so calm, all life gone from him, she had convinced herself he was somehow sleeping.
But now she had a moment, grief took her. She wept like she had never wept before, grabbing onto the closest thing to steady herself as the cold wind stung her flesh, piercing her cloak and chainmail just as her sorrow pierced her heart. She would have blamed herself, but she was suddenly distracted. What is this? she thought, turning her tear-blurred gaze to the thing upon which she was leaning. Katrina blinked, rubbed her eyes, and gasped in horror.
The bone-white trunk of the long-dead, twisted, warped tree was cold beneath her fingers, with a cry, Katrina withdrew and backed away. No-one saw, she thought, looking this way and that. Everyone’s too busy in the village to notice me, everyone’s-…
Something moved in the trees. A crow? The wind?
A figure.
Katrina let out another gasp and leapt backwards. ‘No,’ she whispered, ‘surely…no.’
As she stared into the mangle of twisted bone-white tree-limbs, she saw it again – a flutter, a dark shadow. Heart in her mouth, frozen in fear, Katrina stared wide-eyed into darkness that seemed to twist and grow between the trees. The Lady of the Woods, she thought, wiping the tears from her wide eyes. It’s her, it’s real, it’s-…
Two crows, squawking in anger, burst through the dry canopy, sending finger-bone like twigs exploding into the air. Katrina let out her breath, her heart hammering, and looked away. Don’t be ridiculous, she thought. The Lady of the Woods is a myth.
As she turned her eyes back towards the horizon, taking long, slow breaths, Katrina saw movement. The peasants in the southernmost fields were running, abandoning their harvested produce and retreating back towards the village. She could hear their shouts in the wind: frightened, panicked.
Moments later, like a thick, black fog, an inky-black smear appeared on the horizon, moving quickly across the moor. It came in odd, geometric regiments that stood in stark contrast with the rolling hills of the landscape. A few dark banners emblazoned with the gold of the imperial phoenix blew in the south-bound wind.
‘The Empire!’ Katrina yelled, turning and running back to the village, all thoughts of grief and of the Lady of the Woods gone from her mind. ‘The Empire are here! They’re coming!’ she screamed as she ran back into the village. ‘They’re coming!’

No comments:

Post a Comment