|WHAT CAME BEFORE
The rough long tail of a black horse lashed its flanks as the rider sat motionless, his eyes glinting in the gloom. The horse was uneasy; it disliked the evening. The fading light passed between the valleys and groves with just enough of itself to cast everything into strange half-shadow, a half-shadow that concealed more than even the full shadow of night. The horse's ears twitched—it could hear the movement, soft and menacing, of the Black Wood only a hundred yards away, of leaves moving on leaves, and branches gently groaning. It shifted its weight on its heavy hooves.
“Easy, easy.” The voice of the rider was soothing, but rough, too, on edge and a little angry. He, too, listened to the sounds of the wood, and it, too, chilled his heart and made him want to ride as far away as he could. Something winked out of the forest, and the rider started at the tiny flash. It had only been a gleam—the eyes of some animal perhaps, or the reflection of a stray beam of light. But how was he to know it was not a sorcerer of the wood, lighting an evil fire? He felt as though the icy hand that had been creeping up to take hold of his heart had suddenly clenched it between its cold fingers. He struck angrily at the feeling, hating it, and hating the wood that reduced him to such fear.
The vines and trees and strange swamp-like muddy ground had now spread over most of what had been his land, and had driven away all the farmers and villagers who had lived off its fruit. Sir Lovelace's family had never been very wealthy, but they had prized this land and lived here for hundreds of years, respected because of their generosity and goodness.
The wind whipped around the knight's face, as though the forest exhaled at him, its foul-smelling breath defiant. Sir Lovelace shut his eyes against the smell as though it might sting them. When the wind died, he opened them again.
A cloaked man stood at the edge of the wood, perfectly motionless, almost invisible, almost blending into its foliage. It was as though he had appeared out of thin air, or emerged from inside the wood itself—but Lovelace shook himself. Both ideas were impossible; no one had ever ventured into the wood and returned alive or dead. None dared come so close to the line even at the high noon. No, the only thing that could bring anyone to such a place at such at time was great desperation. Lovelace drew a deep breath and spurred the reluctant horse closer to the Black Wood and the strange man.
As he called to him, the man's face turned. It was a white, beautiful, youthful face that shone in the darkness, but there was something not quite right about it—the set of the mouth, or the eyes, lids drooping and lazy over their black flashing depths. They seemed menacing and evil, full of black magic—but again Lovelace chased away the feeling. There was no reason for this man, strange though he looked, to have anything against Lovelace. “You will need shelter for the night. These are dangerous places to lurk.”
A slender black eyebrow went up on the man's face, and his lips curved into an ironic smile.
“These are dangerous places,” he agreed, looking away calmly. Lovelace tried not to stare; he was not afraid of being rude, but simply afraid that he might give away his suspicions if he scrutinized the man more closely. Yet his mind was full of all he had ever heard of the sorcerers who lived in the wood, who nurtured and drew their power from it, driving it on to increase their power, not caring whose lands and homes would be swallowed up by its advance. Lovelace had never known what to believe. Could this man be the dreadful truth, a sorcerer, at last, daring to step forth? Lovelace stole a sideways glance, and his jaw tightened angrily at the idea. What should he do? Draw his sword and run him through? Ride for his life? Or stay and question him further? Before Lovelace had made up his mind, the man spoke again.
“It has been many years since I saw the moon,” he said. Lovelace looked up and saw a sliver of a moon that seemed to tremble against the deep blue of the sky. He rasped his throat a little, frantically trying to clear his throat of the fear that had clogged it.
“Why?” he managed to ask.
Again the man turned, slowly, slowly, and looked at him. His eyes were black coals in his white face.
“The wood dislikes light,” he said, “especially that of the moon and stars.”
Lovelace looked away, prepared to choose his next words carefully; again the wind gusted out from the wood. When he turned to speak again, Lovelace found himself alone.
For a moment he did nothing; then sheer unbridled terror washed through him, blinding his thoughts with it's strength and wild fire.
THE FIRST CHAPTER
Mysteries lurk within these pages
So let wisdom be your wages.
Princess Parasceva was not the picture of wisdom—she had too much passion and not enough prudence. She climbed the winding narrow path that scaled Mount Nuria as if it was the sides of her cage. The rock rose out of the lesser hills like a king among men, black and jagged and raw and majestic. The dewy wilds of its sides ought to have given Parasceva a feeling of freedom; but her eyes were fixed only on the ground beneath her feet and on her rapid steps to keep them sure.
Walking behind Parasceva were her two younger sisters, Nan and Marion. Marion, the younger of the two sisters, had dark black hair and striking blue eyes that flashed like a bubbling brook when she laughed—and she laughed often. Nan was more sedate in spite of her red hair, which softly framed her face in curls. Behind them walked Bearach, a boy slender with the rapid growth that accompanies approaching manhood, blond and strong-featured. They walked at a moderate pace, not bothering to keep up with Parasceva, and their eyes roamed like sparrows hunting in evening—roamed from the sky to each other's faces to the birds that wheeled beside them. The path was dangerous; twelve feet from where they walked, a cliff sheered away several hundred feet. A vulture hovered above his quarry in the mist and the damp air whispered over Nan's skin, as if it would tell her the meaning of the beauty she saw all around her.
Parasceva paused impatiently on the path ahead and called back to them,
“Come on, you three! Your grandmother will be laid in her grave and your father bent before you get there. What makes you walk so slowly?”
“I thought it was you who wanted to walk,” Nan said grumpily. “You were so pleased to get Gudule's message, and now you're as cross as an old hen and getting on my nerves.”
“I'm walking to preserve mine,” replied Parasceva, just as sharply.
“Why not walk in circles indoors, then?" Nan asked, "You're not paying any attention to the scenery. What if, one day, the dark clouds covered this mountain, what then? What if all we ever smelled was the stench that it carries, of dead things and never breathed this fresh air?”
“Oh, hush, you doomer.” Parasceva waved her hand about her head as if she was batting away gnats. “Everyone, all the time, talks about the Black Line and the cloud and the failing crops and people dying and how the world will end. I get so sick of it. Worry, worry, worry. It's been this way for almost a hundred years, and we've survived, our parents survived.”
“Except mother,” Nan murmured. She glanced sideways at her sister. Parasceva was a very tall girl, at least two feet taller than Nan, but she was not beautiful. She had a strong jaw and a large chin that almost made her look masculine. Her lips were uneven and her skin was sallow with discontent. But, Nan reflected, people are so ready to pick out all of the ugly things and don't think about the beautiful things. Parasceva's blue eyes were even lighter and more vibrant than Marion's.
“I'll be glad when I put my back to this place,” Parasceva went on. She spoke low as though she knew she ought to keep her thoughts to herself, knew that they would irritate Nan, but was unable to. Nan only sighed.
“You'll do it soon enough, Eva. I still don't understand why you want to leave.”
“Nan, surely you must understand. You've lived in the same places I have, had the same childhood.”
“And I am content,” Nan replied immediately.
“No, not for long,” contradicted Parasceva, “restlessness lies in my bones, Nan. I want to see things, do things, meet people.”
“Men, you mean,” Nan interjected, but Parasceva pressed on as if she had not heard her.
“All I've known in my life have been the small walls of that castle we live in, confined and dark, like a light put in corner. I've grown up almost like a servant, wearing old clothes and doing tasks my non-existent attendants ought to be doing until my hands are as rough as a peasant's. No, tomorrow is not soon enough. Yesterday was not soon enough. Years ago was not soon enough.”
“You've got servants!" Nan contradicted, truthfully enough. "Maybe not as many as Tatjana, but still. And anyway, isn't all that...” Nan stopped. She was about to say “selfish,” but paused, afraid of angering her sister by accusing her.
“I've been longing to see the world since I was born. Think of all we were born to and have never had, Nan—we ought to wear silk and jewels and be courted by princes.”
“Whatever,” Nan shook her head disdainfully.
“And I'll have decent company.” Parasceva tried one last barb, glancing behind them as she spoke to indicate her meaning. And this time Nan did turn to see what Parasceva meant, although she was sure she already knew.
“Bearach is decent,” she insisted in a biting whisper, “even if he isn't high-born.”
Perhaps Bearach was a rather unusual companion for the three princesses. Even Nan was not sure she approved of Marion's affectionate friendship with him. Bearach was a boy-of-all-work, mostly a horse-stall mucker, an orphan.
Nan remembered the night he had appeared at the castle eight years ago only dimly, a skinny, wet, and very dirty boy of six or seven. He had ridden into the castle on a wagon full of barrels of ale, and the when the guards discovered him, they attempted to throw him back out into the street. But King Doran heard him crying and stopped them.
“What are you doing?” he had thundered angrily.
“This boy was stowed away in one Lord Origen's wagons,” A guard explained, holding Bearach by the scruff of his neck.
“Release him,” the king ordered, frowning, and then squatted down to address the boy directly. “What is your name, child?” the king had asked, drawing up Bearach's chin to look into his eyes. Bearach had stopped crying very suddenly, awed by the King.
“Bearach, son of Rigobert,” he told him faintly. The king held his gaze for a very long time, but then merely nodded and stood.
“Let him stay,” he said. “The boy can work here.” And slapping his gloves against the palm of his hand, King Doran had turned and walked away. That was the most interest the king had ever taken in him; Nan had thought at one time that he might train him as a knight, but when Nan mentioned Bearach to the king later, she had to remind him who the boy was.
Bearach was only a little older than Nan, so, growing up, she and Marion had made him their playmate between his odd jobs. They had never wrested from him where he had come from before he appeared in the castle, and he never told them anything about his family or why he was alone. Recently Marion had fallen for the blond intelligent boy, in a gently infatuated, mildly idolatrous way.
Today Bearach was very preoccupied. He gazed about him without seeing any of his surroundings and only heard pieces of what Marion was saying to him. Sometimes these pieces seemed important; he would try to string them together, but couldn't. His brain was a jumble of images conjured up by the stories he had heard of the Black Line. He imagined hewing down faceless terrors, slashing through moving poisonous plants that tried to bind him with their branches. But he knew these pictures were likely very far from what he would actually be doing at the Black Line; he had never been trained in the use of a sword, and no one had ever heard of a battle with the Line. No one even knew what lay beyond it, man or beast or bird or creatures more awful.
Marion's voice broke into his thoughts.
“Are you excited to be going?” she asked.
“I don't know what to expect,” answered Bearach. “I'm mostly scared.”
“Father worries about Parasceva,” Marion said, “and I think he wishes she were more scared. But all she thinks about is fun.”
Bearach was too wrapped up in his own thoughts to register this, and absentmindedly looked out over Marion's head at the wheeling birds. She laughingly slipped a hand into one of his.
The winding path they were following led to two structures that graced the side of the mountain. One, the Castle Nuria, named for the mountain (or perhaps the mountain had been named for the Castle), was visible from the hills far below, a majestic black ruin, perched on the crags like an eagle's nest. Once great kings had been enthroned there, and all Fourlands had been united under their crown. But the castle had been abandoned for so long that nature had taken the place in her embrace. One could still see the King's Road that used to draw diplomats and merchants and knights to the castle; the road wound to the south and north. The children had often aspired to climb up to it, but it was several hours trek over rough terrain, and even longer by the King's Road. Instead, they hiked up to the second building on the mountainside, the hermitage. As she drew up, Marion could see Gudule, the lady of the hermitage, waiting for them outside.
“Grandmother!” she called in a singsong voice, still holding Bearach's hand, “the birds are singing and the sun rises high on the slopes!”
Gudule's response echoed off the black rocks around them.
“Come out and dance, my heart, my love.” The lady's voice was deep and resonant, an unexpected sound from such aged lips. Marion had called her “grandmother,” on her first visit, when she had confided to the old lady that she had no mother or grandmother.
“Then you must let me be your grandmother,” Gudule had said.
“But are you, really?” asked Marion.
“Who knows?” responded Gudule. And ever since that day, Marion had wondered about Gudule's past, if some secret lingered there. Parasceva though this very silly.
“Agafya and Modesta were your grandmothers,” she would say, “queens both. I remember them.”
But Gudule even resembled Marion; her hair was wiry gray now, but it had once been as black and rich as Marion's. It hung in a loose braid down her back to her knees. Her eyes were the same blue as Marion's, if more delicately framed by fragile, lacy skin, pale and pink.
Marion dropped Bearach's hand to dash forward and smother Gudule in a crushing embrace.
“Good day, grandmother,” Nan walked up behind and took the hands of the lady in a much more graceful greeting. Then she walked into the hermitage and breathed in slowly, loving its minty, earthy scent. It was a rough stone building with grass growing out of every conceivable crack and nook. Every warm day, Gudule would let the windows and doors of the hermitage stand open so that going outside was rather like just stepping into the next room.
“How have you been?” Marion asked Gudule. The lady spread her hands.
“I wake, I rise, I breathe fresh air,” she said, “and my days pass as they always have. The wind tells me all is calm on the mountain, and the grass grows with the same serenity. But when the clean mists of Nuria clear, a different tale is told.” Nan looked at Gudule seriously and nodded.
“Yes,” she said, “the mists from the Black Line have spread all the way to the castle now.”
“Are you afraid?” asked Gudule.
Nan gazed back at her and didn't know what to say. She was not afraid, or she thought she had not been afraid, but the moment Gudule asked her that question, she felt something black pound at her chest.
“I don't know what the mist means or what it brings us,” she said, “but I have not yet been afraid.”
“No one knows what it means,” Gudule said gently, “but nothing is hopeless. I would not have sent for you today if they were.” She took one of Nan and Marion's hands and led them back through the hermitage. On the other side of the building was a stone space beside the cliff, and in the middle of the space, a rough table. Gudule sat down here and turned both princesses about to face her. She looked at them intently.
“Now,” she said, “I am very glad you have come and feel that no time is to be lost. I have something for you both, something that I have treasured greatly and kept more secret than any other secret I keep. But I think, in this time of fear and uncertainty, it is time for you to have it.”
She dropped their hands to reach inside the collar of her dress and pulled out a chain. This she drew over her head, and, pulling open Marion's hand, pressed the object into it. Marion looked down.
“A key?” she asked. Nan leaned over her shoulder to look. It was strangely delicate for such an ordinary object—not large and heavy like the keys normally used about the castle. It was made of gold, but hard like no gold Marion had ever seen. Embossed in silver just above the blade was an intricately worked rose. Nan ran her fingers over it lightly.
“What is it for, grandmother?” asked Nan, “what does it unlock?”
“Secrets,” answered the lady, “and I do not know what they are, only that they are for you. I was told when I was given it that the clues to finding what the key unlocks are on the walls of Mooring Castle. Remember that—on the walls of the castle.” Both girls gazed at her, puzzled. She shook her head slightly. “No, I don't know what it means—maybe a door or a hidden passageway. But that is where you should start.”
Nan and Marion nodded slowly and she released them from the intensity of her eyes. “Enough,” she said, “now hide it.” Gudule put the chain over Marion's neck and slipped the key inside her dress.
At that moment, Bearach put his head around the door-frame to see what they were doing. Marion and Nan both started and stood looking guilty, but Gudule at once said,
“Bear! I had not forgotten about you.” Bearach promptly looked embarrassed. “Are you ready to go to the Black Line?”
“Yes, lady,” Bearach responded formally, “a messenger came two weeks ago to my lord from the Lord Gallus, requesting his assistance and advice. And now other knights and vassals, too, have come for help.”
“A messenger, you say?”
"There has never been much that might alone can do against such witchcraft, Bearach, but do not let that discourage you.”
“Yes, lady,” Bearach agreed, though his brows furrowed like he didn't. Gudule chuckled.
“One day all that goes on inside you will find a voice—one day.” Bearach looked startled, but did not again repeat, “Yes, lady.” He nodded awkwardly.
“I'll feed you before you return,” said Gudule, rising, “where is Eva?”
“She went on up the path,” said Bearach.
"She's been fidgety the last few days,” added Marion, “very excited to be leaving.”
Sadness and worry flitted in Gudule's blue eyes, but then she blinked and the hint of tears seemed to be gone. She sighed and said quietly,
“I hope she will be safe.”
It was foaming white milk and soft mellow cheese after that as below them all the Fourlands, and Mooring Castle, and all the troubles they held were hidden.
It was dusk when they returned to the castle, the natural white mists of night blending and striving with the unnatural dark mists from the Black Line. Walking back down the mountain was in some ways much more difficult than walking up, resisting the pull of gravity with every step, running and tripping when the ground was steep or slippery. Ahead of them, the castle was a blaze of lights. The flames of torches and glow of lamps shone out from behind turrets and through windows and over walls. The gate had been thrown open, and a troop of people on horseback and on foot could be seen snaking their way into the courtyard.
“Oh, no,” Marion stopped short. Her stomach seemed to have dropped right out of existence, leaving only a black hole.
“What?” Bearach asked, stopping next to her and following her gaze to the castle.
“Is that...” Marion began uncertainly.
“It seems the lords and knights have arrived.” Nan said with satisfaction, obviously not troubled by the sight. “They'll be going with the King to the Black Line.”
“Fantastic.” Marion said unenthusiastically.
“What's wrong with that?” asked Bearach curiously.
“It's going to be like court.” Marion said glumly.
“What's wrong with court?”
Marion looked at him darkly,
“You've never been in the castle when it's in full swing.”
“It's not so bad,” Nan disagreed, “and you have to admit it's far more interesting around here with a full court. It only happens twice a year.”
“I know.” Marion grinned at Bearach. “Father says that's because they eat too much—if he held court longer, he wouldn't be able to feed them all. And because they bicker if they talk too long.” She sighed. “I hate court.”
“But why do you dislike it?” Bearach wasn't giving up.
"She doesn't like it,” Nan told him, “because it means a lot less freedom for us. We can't go anywhere without causing a commotion, especially Eva.”
“No,” Marion said, a little defensive, “it's not so much the freedom, exactly. I hate court because I'm a princess and everybody thinks it necessary to stop and bow or flatter or shout 'Princess Marion coming through!' like I was a herd of turtles. It's so embarrassing.” The others laughed at her comical vexation.
“They'll be gone tomorrow, Marion,” said Paraseceva, “surely you can put up with it until then.”
“Putting up with it's not the problem,” Marion said, “I can get used to anything, even whiskers in my food. But I don't like it, enjoy it, find it edifying.”
“Wha--Whiskers!” Eva protested.
“Yes, that difficulty you had swallowing at midsummer's feast? That strange, fibrous texture to the otherwise tender pheasants? And the flavor that you couldn't place? That was hair from Sir Pratchett's beard.”
“What are you talking about?” Nan demanded. “How could...”
“I pulled three hairs out of my pheasants—black and curly. Only Pratchett has curls like that.”
“Marion!” Nan was giggling in spite of herself.
“I asked Nettle about it,” Marion insisted. “She said he had been in the kitchen trying to snitch food before the meal, but when he leaned over the fire to cut off a piece of the boar, his beard got singed. He trimmed it to cover it up—unfortunately right over the pheasants. He's not the brightest.”
“But Nettle would never serve it like that!” Parasecva protested.
“She didn't know. She just said she smelled burned hair in the kitchen and found his knife with boar meat and hair on it next to the fire. She didn't realize he was so thick as to leave his hair sitting with the pheasants. She stirred it without really looking at it and sent it out. We consumed the first-ever Pratchett-flavored birds. And that's why I don't like court.”
“I don't believe a word of it.” Parasceva said disdainfully as Bearach and Nan doubled over laughing. “You made that up, just now.”
“Did not.” Marion answered, grinning.
The laughs made Marion less nervous for the moment, but as they drew closer, the old dread began to steal over her again. There was never room enough in the castle for all the knights and squires and lords and whatnot to be housed, so many of the lesser nobles and knights and most of the horses and servants were camped outside the walls in colorful, fluttering tents. Luckily, they passed through unnoticed in the light of the campfires, and slipped up to the gate.
“You go first,” hissed Eva, pushing Nan and Marion in front of her. Nan gave Eva a scornful look. She didn't mind either the commotion or the knights and Lords who were obligated to talk to them because of their rank. Marion never quite understood how she did it, how she knew who to talk to or what to say to them. She followed right on Nan's heels, almost ready to simply make a break for it, to run wildly up the steps and into the quiet of the castle apartments. But then Nan paused for a moment, and a guard saw them. Marion sighed; it was all up. He pushed his too-large helmet out of his eyes, stood taller and drew a deep breath.
“Their royal highnesses, Princess Nan, Princess Marion, and Princess Royal Parasceva!”
Now came the worst. The courtyard fell almost completely silent, and everybody—everybody—from the Lord Gallus, cold, proud, and hard-mouthed, all the way down to Joseph, the grizzly old stable-man, turned and stared. Their eyes seemed to peer out of every window and every overlook, eyes and eyes and eyes, endlessly. Marion swallowed. She would never get used to this, never. Then she felt Nan tug at her arm.
“Come on!” she hissed.
Nan had always been good at this. She walked briskly, gracefully, smilingly, through the part in the crowd, not a whit disturbed as people murmured “your highness” or “God save ye,” as they walked past. Then, to Marion's horror, she stopped in front of a familiar-looking knight.
“Sir Lovelace,” she said, and he dropped his eyes respectfully. Was that his name? Marion wondered. She remembered the face. It was a rough, harsh face, she thought, but honest and kind. He met Nan's eyes occasionally, quietly honored by her attention and respectful of her rank.
“Your highness,” he murmured in response to her greeting. She asked him about his travels, if his manor was still safe from the Black Line and how his daughter was. Marion tried not to hyperventilate.
“How do you do that?” she hissed as they climbed the tower steps and went into the keep.
“I stay calm, ninny,” Nan answered, with dignity. Marion turned to peek back at the courtyard once more—everyone had gone back to doing whatever they had been doing before. Bearach was nowhere to be seen. He must have slipped away from then when the first entered the courtyard.
Chapter Two may be found at the link below. Thank you for reading!