Presented, without comment (save this one) is the first chapter in what I’ve been working on the past year or so. Enjoy!
Part I: Red Circle
The boy ran through the forest, away from the horrible sound of those rattling bones. He was so frightened that, for a moment, he even forgot who he was.
Heinrich. My name is Heinrich. I am Heinrich von Eppanhof, son of Johannes von Eppanhof. I am from Vienna, capital of the most powerful empire on the continent.
And a skeleton is chasing me.
There should be no such thing, he knew. Skeletons were supposed to stay in the ground, notwithstanding what the Scriptures say. And he didn’t believe, couldn’t believe, that such a fate was what lay ahead in the resurrection.
At least the thing was away from Ilsa. But Ilsa, clinging to a rock in the Danube, was not out of trouble. Not yet. If he did not find help soon, she would learn that the depths of those normally placid waters could be just as deadly as any monster from the depths of her nightmares. But there would also danger in whatever help he may come across; anyone wandering in these woods at this late hour might be a worse kind of monster. The human kind.
He would have fought the skeleton, of course, but like a fool he had left his sword at home. I won’t need it, he had told himself. The Empire is safe. What danger could there be in spending a romantic night by the river with the one he loved?
Now he could see what a stupid, cosseted scion of nobility he truly was.
Soft. I am soft and I am paying the price. His father would be disappointed in him. As usual. Even now, racing for his life through the forest, he could hear his father’s stern words: “A man must always be prepared, Heinrich. What were you thinking?”
Right now, Father . . . right now all I am thinking about is how to stay alive.
The clattering grew closer, as did that chill, that icy blast of inhumanity emanating from the skeleton. It was like a smell; not aggressive scent of decay, not exactly. It was aggressive, yes, but aggressive in its complete emptiness, as though the skeleton inhabited a void that drew in the life and warmth surrounding it.
One slip, one loss of ground, and that emptiness would be upon him. And what then?
But the moon was his friend that night, her light filtering through the trees to guide him with a silvery finger. He always thought of the moon as a her, mysterious and seductive in the night sky, coyly revealing only one side of her face to her waiting earthbound suitors.
More flighty mooning, his thoughts yet again turning to tales of lords and ladies, love and adventure. No wonder both his father and Karl his sword instructor thought him an unserious boy.
He was a man, or would be soon. And he had to start acting like one.
He hopped the gnarled branch of an oak, hoping that the thing behind him would trip, falling to the ground in an explosion of lifeless bones.
But when he peeked over his shoulder the thing still followed, grinning malevolently and holding aloft a long, thick bone. Where that bone came from, Heinrich couldn’t say; the skeleton seemed to have all of its in place. But that was a mystery to ponder on another, safer day.
He turned back and found himself face-to-face with a tree that had seemed to leap into his path. With a grace he did not know he possessed he spun, skirting the tree and continuing his flight for at least a few moments more.
Suddenly he was out of the forest and onto the road, bursting from the wilderness in a spray of leaves and branches. The sight of that hard-packed dirt, so familiar to him, had never been so welcome. And there, a little further ahead, he saw the shadowy form of someone walking towards the city. A man. A large one.
The man carried no torch. Who wanders down the road without light? Heinrich thought, even with the moon so bright? But a drowning man did not scoff at the lifeline dangling before him, even if it lead up into the unknown.
“Help!” he screamed, panic giving his voice strength. “Over here, help!”
A strong wind blew towards the city, stray leaves swirling along the road. The man’s cloak fluttered around his legs like folded wings. He stopped moving and turned, but did not come running.
Heinrich opened his mouth to yell again, but something hard struck his head, cutting off his cry. He fell to his knees as though in prayer before toppling forward with his face in the dirt. Next to him, a long bone fell to the road with a heavy thump.
He lay, wondering what the skeleton would do to him and how much it would hurt. But before the panic overtook him he felt an odd calm envelop him like a warm blanket. Things will not be so bad on the other side, he thought. There would be no pain and no sorrow, no skeletons chasing him through dark forests. He would see his mother again . . .
Eyes closed as though sleeping, Heinrich prepared to answer before the awesome seat of judgment for whatever transgressions he had committed in his sixteen short years on Earth.
But before his end came, he had to look. He had to see what the traveler on the road would do. Was he a coward? Would he flee in a panic at the sight of the skeleton, the way Heinrich had? Or would he help? It didn’t much matter at this point, but curiosity always had a way of getting the best of him.
The man, far taller and broader than he had first appeared, threw off his cloak and ran towards Heinrich. In the brilliant moonlight Heinrich could see a square face framed by a shaggy mane held back by a thick leather band. That hair and jutting jaw gave the man the aspect of a wolf, or maybe a lion, though whether this predator hunted man or monster he could not say.
As the stranger crossed the distance between them with quick, purposeful strides, Heinrich noticed he held something by his side. It looked like a stick, about a foot long and as thick as two fingers.
Heinrich despaired, wondering what good a stick would do against his devilish tormentor. Although in truth Heinrich would gladly have taken a stick over his bare hands.
Then the man gave the stick a hard shake and down dropped a chain, a spiked ball dangling menacingly from its end.
Seeing that weapon picked out in the moonlight gave Heinrich a sense of peace. Though he couldn’t say how, he knew in his core that he would survive this night.
If there was anything to be wary of, the skeleton did not know it. On it ran, leaping over Heinrich’s prone form to rush towards the man. Heinrich felt that chill as it passed over him, thick and inhuman, making him want to scream in revulsion.
It landed with a clatter and continued its stride, arms outstretched, thin white fingers grasping for something to crush.
But the man was still, calm; he had stopped running, skidding on the dirt, and began to spin his flail in a slow circle, hunched in a ready stance and waiting for the skeleton to close the distance.
The skeleton leapt, reaching, no doubt expecting an easy kill. As it flew through the air, Heinrich wondered if the thing could feel doubt, the sickening realization that it had made some terrible, fatal mistake.
The man swung his flail, catching the skeleton in mid-air. The spiked ball hit its chest with a loud crack like an axe splitting wood and the thing exploded, its end coming silently save for the rattling of bones as they fell to the dirt like rain, once more inert and lifeless.
Heinrich scrambled to his hands and knees. “Ilsa!” he yelled, hoping she had not yet succumbed to the river’s greedy pull.
“My name is not Ilsa, but I am sure you knew that,” said the man, squatting on thick legs and extending a hand to Heinrich. His German was crisp, flawless, like that of an aristocrat, but with an odd accent Heinrich could not place. “Where is this Ilsa? What has happened to her?”
“The river,” said Heinrich. He took the man’s large, rough hand and was pulled to his feet like a child. “We were running and she fell and–”
“I will gladly hear your story when everyone is safe. Please, show me where she is.”
Standing next to the man, Heinrich knew he should be frightened. He was a stranger, after all, and a huge one, thick and powerful. And swarthy, unlike most people in the Empire. But he spoke that flawless, gentleman’s German, and there were many peoples in the Empire which may explain his accent. He could be from the south, or the east. No matter his origin, he was a citizen of the Empire, one of Heinrich’s countrymen. There may be other reasons to distrust this man, but his place of birth should not be one of them.
Nor should the fact that the man was armed and armored; in fact, given the situation, it was reassuring. His breastplate was of a style unfamiliar to Heinrich, thin strips of metal circling his torso meeting at the center, with pauldrons of chainmail over his shoulders and around his neck. At his side was an odd curved short sword, unlike any Heinrich had used but which looked maddeningly familiar. A round metal shield was strapped to the pack he wore over his shoulders. A traveler, then, though whether he lived in the city or was visiting from elsewhere Heinrich could not say.
His face, too, should have been scary, with that jutting jaw and those heavy brows. But something in his smile and those pale grey eyes put him at ease. It was foolish, Heinrich knew, irrational, but he could not shake the feeling that this was a friend.
Heinrich waved his arm towards the forest behind them. “This way!”
The man nodded. “Quickly.”
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