The woman sat on a cushioned chair in the top floor of a cold stone tower; alone. Silent. With a book in her lap.
She was not reading the book – it was closed – but she looked down at its cover and imagined its contents.
Of course, she would not open it. It had been years (two exactly) since she last opened it, which had been a mistake. Instead she held it tenderly in her lap like the corpse of a best friend, and felt a dull ache in her chest.
The woman gravitated closer and closer to the emotions trying to come forth. She did not do this voluntarily. It was a masochistic tendency she could not explain. Perhaps it was just something to do; chafe against the unpleasant sensation taking hold in her. But she did not let the experience continue. With a knee-jerk reaction she cut it off and shielded herself behind a wall of numb apathy. The emotion died, along with anything else inside, and her world was once again plunged into a grey indifference.
This technique of mental control came as easily as breathing. She couldn’t remember when she had developed the habit – and she didn’t want to. She didn’t care. Like a thick fog it clouded everything over and hid her in the bliss of unfeeling. It was far better than the alternative.
She stood and returned the book to the dusty shelf. A cold breeze from the window cut through the room, bringing with it the smells of pine and the rustic scent of early spring. The woman walked to the window and looked out upon the ever-stretching landscape of forest, walled by distant mountain ranges.
This and all I can see is my home, she thought to herself. There has never before been a prison so vast.
Dawn was beginning to break against the tower’s mossy walls. She knew she had best hurry back before her absence was noted. The woman sighed, gave one last look at the bookshelf in the lonely tower, and took the stairs down. As she stepped outside the early morning breeze brushed her with a dewy chill. The day would prove cool and temperate, she guessed.
The woman locked the door with an iron key only she possessed or even knew of, and returned to the thin footpath winding into the woods, leaving behind the old tower and its small adjacent graveyard dotted with headstones whose names had been long forgotten.
In the silver-red light of the new day the dawn chorus of songbirds struck its first chords. She did not know their names, but she could identify their calls all the same, and could match the call with their coloration and plumage. She had allowed her cold mental wall to drop as she followed the path through the canopy of music. That’s exactly as it sounded to her ears; music in its most natural form. It was one of the few joys she still allowed herself. A sad smile of things long left behind broke through the mask. She gave herself up to the small twinge of emotion before picking up the pace.
Ahead, a wealth of evergreens shed their needles to become skeletal trunks, choked over with cattails and aquatic ferns. Through the wall of bare trees she could see a sparkling body of water drawing near.
It was a small lake, over-grown with reeds and still as the morning sky. She watched it while following the path that ran closer to its edge. So tall and dense was the wall of cattails about the lake’s edge that the water itself could only be seen at sparse moments. With the warming of the season wildlife would soon flourish in the still waters.
The trail split up ahead to the left and right. The woman took the right path, toward the burbling stream that fed the pond. Crossing was an easy task, as the stream was not particularly wide, nor very powerful. She stepped lightly from stone to stone, and soon emerged from the woods.
An open tract of grassland spread before her now, dominated by buildings of cold grey stone, wooden barns, and footpaths pounded into the soil. The edge of the lake curved away to her left, and hugging its south-eastern banks was a fenced-off stableyard and adjoining stables. The horses were out in the early morning, grazing in silence.
In front of her, to the south, stood two greenhouses and a series of raised-bed gardens huddled together in a loose grid. Two hundred meters past stood an old stone keep and all its adjoining structures. The keep dwarfed all other buildings with its bulk, standing there like the cold remains of a fallen giant. The windows were dark, its turrets tall and uninviting. Green penants hung limp in the morning light.
And just like that, like a dead leaf caught in the autumn wind, the small pocket of joy nestled in her heart was gone. And like a tree shedding its leaves in an attempt at survival, she fell into the cold grey trance of numbness and callous indifference yet again. This was simply the reality of her life, she thought.
And now I’m back again. Back to reality.
Any remorse she would have felt from this thought plied feebly at her deadened senses like a weak wind against a rock. She did not truly feel it. She did not truly feel anything.
She took just a moment to ensure no one could see her before walking quickly through the gardens and greenhouses and back to the keep.
She did not get far. Just as she reached the first greenhouse, movement caught her eye and made her stop short. Emerging in the distance – far past the stableyard to the east – came riding a unit of armed horsemen dressed in green livery.
The Baron’s men, she thought.
She pressed herself up against the corner of the greenhouse, trying to stay out of sight. In between the riders was suspended a makeshift stretcher, a dark form cradled within.
Was one of them injured? She blinked in the morning light. I only see six horses, not seven. Did they lose a horse?
The group rode across the open field toward the keep, following the shortest of the worn paths. She could see the leader of the group. The man was all long, ropy muscle. He had short black hair up in a top knot. A long, white scar marred his otherwise handsome face. Over one shoulder a rifle was slung, and a series of knives ran along his belt next to a curved shortsword. He held himself confidently upon his dappled mare, loose and alert.
The woman shivered in fear at the sight of the man.
Duncan Le Treu.
The soldiers rode out of sight, straight toward the keep’s front entrance.
They passed right by the stables without stopping, she thought to herself. Something is wrong. She re-doubled her pace, past the gardens and the chapel connected to the keep.
Through a back storeroom entrance she entered the keep without being noticed. From there she stopped trying to conceal her passage, instead walking openly through the kitchen and to the main landing. The servants were already up and about, preparing the morning meal and attending to the Baron’s needs. They curtsied to her as she passed, offering up “M’lady” in quiet murmurs.
By the time she reached the main landing the riders had dismounted, entered, and summoned the Baron. Their boots dragged mud and dirt into the foyer, though none seemed to notice or care. They brought with them the smell of tobacco and sweat.
The Baron had his back to her, dressed hastily in untied boots and red-gold finery. His thinning hair stood at ends, clearly having just risen out of bed.
They were conversing in curt words – the Baron and Duncan – while the men-at-arms stood milling about, waiting for a command. She could pick up a few sparse words from Duncan.
“…off the road. And, no, no one else.”
The Baron sounded irritable in his response.
“The monster again, isn’t it. Another dead villager?”
Duncan shifted on his feet and casually tucked his hands in his sword-belt.
“Not this time, lord. At least, I don’t recognize him, nor do any of my men.”
My men, he said, the woman noted. Not your men.
Duncan continued, not noticing his own error.
“And there was something else…” Duncan waved forth one of the men-at-arms, who brought him a long, curved implement of what looked like antler or bone.
“…he had this on him.” Duncan held it out to the Baron, who took it into his hands with hesitation.
The woman could not see the expression on the Baron’s face, given that his back was to her, but his voice, now low and curt, told her enough.
“Show me to him,” the Baron muttered.
Duncan led him out the front entrance where they had left the horses, now pawing at the ground in impatience. The other men-at-arms shuffled out behind them. The door was left open.
The woman had watched all this from the top of the landing, but had lost sight once they walked out the front door. Her curiosity was too aroused to stay put. She descended the stairs to afford her a view out the front door.
The Baron, Duncan, and the men-at-arms were circled around the stretcher which bore atop it an unmoving form. At first the woman could not tell the form was a person. A cloak splayed across its limp body, covered in equal parts dirt and blood. Wearing the cloak was a man, dead or close to dead, shot through the chest with a black arrow.
The woman had seen many rough-and-tumble sorts throughout her life; loggers, trappers, miners, and the like. But the man on the stretcher was perhaps the most filthy creature she had ever seen. His dark beard grew from a face mired in mud and dried gore. A nasty gash ran the length of his scalp, still pink and glistening.
His thread-bare clothing was torn in most places, and stained with sweat and grime in others. Through his boot she could see bare toes poking out, early in the stages of frostbite. The color of the man’s skin was indeterminable beneath the layers of dirt and filth. Of his eyes and face she could see very little, so covered over in a mess of brown hair and fresh claw-marks. He looked like a wretched, broken creature of the wilds, put down like a rabid dog. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
The sound of Le Treu’s voice, directed at her, made the woman jump in surprise.
“M’lady. Good morning.” He smiled a handsome smile, the scar curving a white, jagged line across his face. Everyone turned to face her in surprise, including the Baron, whose expression went rigid.
“What are you doing out here.” The hard look in his eyes spoke volumes.
What would have normally crippled the woman with fear in the attention of her husband instead felt like…nothing. Nothing at all. Just a deadened weight in her chest like a cold lump of iron.
She started to come up with an excuse – something innocent to say that would deflect the ire of the Baron. Before she could, Duncan cut in.
“Lord, what should we do with him?”
The Baron turned back to Le Treu, the woman now forgotten. “Is he alive?”
Duncan looked over the still form. “Barely. The arrow slipped right through his ribs. Should have died a long time ago.”
A period of silence came over the group as they redirected their attention toward the huddled form on the stretcher. Finally the Baron spoke, almost too quietly for her to hear.
“And the demon?”
Le Treu shook his head. “No sign of it.”
The Baron grunted and lowered his bulky form to better scrutinize the dying man with the arrow in his chest.
“…The arrow is different.”
Duncan nodded. “Not the Render’s arrow. It uses grey-shafted bone arrowheads. This looks more like a hunter’s arrow.”
He pointed vaguely at the arrow with his boot. “Fletching’s different too. Probably a steel arrowhead, though I can’t know for sure without pulling it out of the poor sod.”
“Shot with his own arrow? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Duncan shrugged – and as the Baron closely scrutinized the weapon – risked a sly smile at the woman, his eyes full of lechery. A shiver of cold horror shot down her spine. No one else noticed.
The Baron straightened back up with a grunt and massaged the bridge of his nose with his fingers. She recognized the gesture. Le Treu, recognizing it as well, allowed the moment to pass in silence.
The Baron looked back at the antler weapon in his ringed hand: “This is the Render’s bow…”
He stared at the dying man with a new light in his eyes not previously there.
“This man and the demon must have battled with each other’s weapons. But how…and why?”
Duncan Le Treu scoffed. “Another dead to the demon, then.”
The Baron looked sharply at him, conviction burning in his gaze.
Duncan’s eyebrows shot up. “M’lord?”
“No, Le Treu. We must not let this man die.” Abruptly the Baron turned his back on Duncan and began addressing the men-at-arms.
“You and you; fetch that damn herbalist. I want you, you, and you to clean out the biggest cell we have; no rats, no shit, no leaks.” The men-at-arms scattered to their various duties, some glancing at Duncan for confirmation before doing so.
“Duncan,” the Baron put a thick hand on Le Treu’s shoulder “let’s keep this man out of sight. Bring him down below and keep it discreet.”
He swept his gaze over those remaining, now standing alert, until he came to the woman. He looked at her with spite, as though she were the cause of all his problems.
“Get back inside.”
It was a command.
Mute and unflinching, she drifted back into the keep like a ghost.