Chateaux Devaneaux, 1547
The path curved gently; disappearing into the dimly lit trees ahead.
Marielle cast a longing glance back over her shoulder. Through the gap that delineated the forest from the rest of the world, the ground rose slightly, obscuring the view of the Chateaux beyond. Bright, comforting sunlight limned the irregularly shaped arch formed by the trees and bushes.
Already, Marielle was beginning to wonder if going after her horse was such a good idea. Might it not be better, her sensible mind asked, that, all things considered, she go back to the Chateaux, and enlist some of her uncle's men to help her search for the horse? She almost turned around, but she caught herself - her carefree spirit reasserting itself.
How would it look, she asked, if she returned now and had to admit that she had lost her horse; and on the very first ride? Her uncle would displeased, though he would not show that to her face - she would still know that she had disappointed him.
And, it might be too late by then, for her poor horse. Whatever had spooked him might still be nearby, and the thought of the frightened beast galloping madly through the trees was more than she could bear. The poor thing might injure himself -stumble, and break a leg - then what would become of him?
The thought of her horse - lost; frightened; injured - was enough for Marielle to take a deep, steadying breath, and take a resolute step forwards - towards the shadows.
Within minutes, she had moved cautiously into the bend and allowed the path to guide her away from the welcoming warmth of the sun. Her slippers made no sound upon the densely packed needles and soil as she walked; senses alert for any sound of danger.
Marielle had heard nothing from the colt for a while now, and the thought that something might have already happened to the young horse impelled her onwards. Shadows became darker, and the silence around her felt heavier; almost a physical weight bearing down upon her. Before her, the path twisted sinuously between massive trees; seen easily as a pale scar upon the forest floor.
Marielle soon lost track of time. It felt to her as though she had been in the forest for a long time - but, she consoled herself, it could only have been minutes; certainly less than an hour, since she'd been thrown from the colt. She had heard stories of people lost in forests similar to this one, and how easily it was to lose track of one's senses under the trees. As long as she stayed on the path, she told herself, she would be fine.
The forest around Marielle was changing. Ever larger trees began to crowd the path, their thick trunks gnarled, and their branches bent into grotesquely deformed shapes. To Marielle, they seemed to be reaching towards the path - towards her.
Marielle stayed to the center of the path, unwilling to let any of the branches touch her. She knew it was an irrational fear; the fear of a child - terrified of the darkness. Yet the thought of letting any of the trees come within grasping distance of her was abhorrent to her.
As her vision adjusted to the gloom around her, it seemed that some of the deeper shadows, further into the forest on either side, were shifting uneasily, just beyond the field of her vision. There was no sound; the trees kept their counsel silently, yet Marielle had a sense of their awareness of things around them - of her.
More than once, Marielle almost turned back towards the safety that lay beyond the perimeter of the forest, but each time her natural stubbornness kept her feet moving forwards.
'If only Max could see me.' The idea almost made Marielle laugh aloud. The oppressive forest around her stifled the happy sound before it could escape her lips, and Marielle contented herself with a small, tightly controlled smile.
Her twin brother had always teased her; accusing Marielle of having little sense of adventure. Although as studious as his younger sibling, Maximilian Devaneaux possessed the ability of always managing to get himself into trouble. Named for his father, as Marielle had been for their mother, Max was quick, intelligent, and mischievous.
Having never known their parents, the twins had always relied upon each other, and upon their uncle, who had taken them in, after their parents had died. Always in trouble with his uncle, for one reason or another, Henri had sent Maximilian away at an early age, in order to gain a decent education. Marielle argued almost constantly with her brother when he was home, and missed him greatly, when he was away. Now, in the gloom - in the forest - Marielle wished that Max was by her side, his confident self-assurance a support against the unknown dangers that lurked beneath the trees.
A panic-stricken whinny from somewhere ahead made Marielle's heart flutter and leap into her throat. The sound died away, and the girl listened intently, waiting. After a minute or so, it became apparent that the sound was not going to repeat itself. Marielle started again along the path, hoping that her horse was still alive, somewhere up ahead of her.
It seemed to Marielle, that it was getting lighter in the forest. Maybe her night-vision was improving, she thought; yet she doubted it was so. Around her, a diffused, lambent glow illuminated the trunks of the trees closest to her. There was no discernible light source, yet Marielle was able to make out details; she could discern irregular protrusions and lumpy texture of bark - fungal outgrowths that gave their hosts a deformed aspect. Branches grew together over her head, a natural, encompassing archway - just beyond her reach.
Another anguished whinny - Marielle paused, head cocked towards the sound, then she hurried on; her caution forgotten in her sudden concern for the horse. She took perhaps a dozen steps forward, rounding a sharp bend in the path.
Her forward progress was halted abruptly, by something blocking the path. Marielle discovered it by the simple expedient of stumbling into it. Sticky, wet strands were strung between the trees on either side of the path. As Marielle struck several of the strands, soft light sparkled into existence in front of her face; lambent filaments of light that danced along the fibers for a short distance before evanescing into nothingness.
Startled, Marielle attempted to back up. The sticky strands allowed her a single step backwards, before contracting once more; tightening their grip upon her clothes and skin. Every move she made brought more of the strands into contact with her; each flaring softly as they moved with her.
Marielle fought wildly - both against her own sudden terror, and the strands holding her. She twisted, fighting the tightening hold along one side. As she did so, the strands binding her other side, her right, tightened suddenly, almost dragging her from her feet. Marielle maintained a precarious balance as she was pulled inexorably deeper into the mass.
Around her, in the silence that was broken only by the sound of her high, terrified panting, silvery light shimmered into brief existence and died - to be replaced by others of their kind. Through her panic, the incongruous thought occurred to Marielle, that this stuff was the source of the glow she had seen, and wondered if her horse was also here somewhere - trapped somewhere deeper within.
Deeper into the sticky morass, the terrified girl was dragged. Marielle kicked instinctively, wildly. Her foot was caught and held, and Marielle found herself lifted off the ground. Her struggles became wilder, as the primitive part of her brain took over her fight for life. Marielle's world closed in upon her, her vision narrowing until it was composed of naught but softly scintillating lights, that crawled around her and across her; strangely beautiful to Marielle, despite her numb terror.
Her bindings tightened, and Marielle began to have trouble drawing air into her lungs. Her last thought, before she passed out, was for her uncle, and her brother.