A short, gothic story about a noble, whose curiosity will see him meet his fate.
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Before I get started I would like to mention, this is a short story project I produced for college project. Harsh, but constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated.
The dirt trail was trampled to desecration under foot and hoof, both enthusiastically exhausted. Complaints bounced amongst the men on horseback, and even more muttered by those on foot. Nigh on a week of walking a forest flanked road found man and beast equally as lost as each other. The road to Lurkwood should have had them set up camp no more than thrice. Yet here they trudged betwixt the trees while their sixth advancement came to a halt.
“We stop here and wait again for the sun. Squire, to me!” The man clad in iron and steel raised his voice to his attendant. Emerging from the middle of the train came a weary young man answering the call of Sir Solomon Blakewell. He was adorned in a black tunic, grey breeches and a thin layer of dirt.
“I am here, my lord.” The aide addressed his noble superior.
“Have the men make camp, horses tethered and tents built. Take yourself and a small handful to make safe the surroundings. Once done, rejoin me around a fire. We shall make merry this miserable forest.”
The man bowed shallow then turned on his heels to obey his master. The knight knew there was no merriment to be made in this place, nor could their surroundings ever be truly safe until they found their way home. From atop his horse, woeful muttering became apparent to our protagonist. Whispers amongst tired minds selfishly conversed of self-pity. All overheard through clanking metal, flapping sheets of a heavy linen or filthy white cloth. Taking a few moments to observe revealed the flanking fir trees to be more suffocating than the day before. Once he saw them as tall and majestic, now they seemed naught but constraining; they choked the life from his company day by day. He knew they must soon find a way to quit this forest descending into gloom. One might suggest that they go back and retrace their path. However they were already too far journeyed and too far-gone of food and water. Now there lies only hope in pressing forward.
By now a man had stepped forward to relieve Sir Blakewell of his long serving steed, a beast bred for battle. The creature had a scarred coat of pitch black, evidence that it had fulfilled its reason for being, and yet still it partook in wars it could never possibly fathom. The horse’s rider parted, leaving his mount to someone else’s care.
As he wandered, inspecting the work undergoing, Sir Blakewell meandered into a realm of recurring, yet motivating, thought, that of home. Its barebones and its pleasures alike. Close to a month had passed since he was last in its cosy halls, nearly a month since he experienced the security of its domesticity. How he longed for the bountiful feasts of food and the comfort of his family, it may make others think he had departed his estate many decades ago.
Such thoughts continued through his meal and lingered into the beginnings of his restless sleep. Few others bothered to ask of his thoughts, for they were all thinking the same. To some of his train, this was only about a simple shack or even the familiarity provided by the walls of a civilised city, both even Sir Blakewell would have indulged in at this time. Since entering the hive of wood and leaves a crushing weight, an unquenchable curse, had been sapping all but the worst things from the men. And so peaceful sleep was found by none.
In the midst of night, an echoing toll rang amongst the bark of trees and discarded armour of man, and glided wistfully across tent canvas and leaves. It lingered for a moment before it faded into the distance. All stood still for an agonising moment.
The haunting sound called Sir Blakewell from the short rest he had thus far achieved. He awoke to loud silence, fleeting as it were. The noise chimed again, a deep tintinnabulation trailed behind and he followed it out of the tent. Gazing around found him alone, no others had arisen to the faint ringing. He feared for a moment that the forest had driven him mad, the disorientating repetition had caused him to create his own imagined variety. It was then it came again, sounding too clear, too vivid to be false. He found himself waiting for the next one, hoping it would provide more information than the previous instance. Minute after minute was spent intently listening, painstakingly discerning in which direction the sound indicated civilisation. He dare not rouse the men, for if it truly was nothing more than a fantasy, his authority over the group would certainly be put to question. He thought for a moment, at a loss until a soft breeze stroked his cheek, and with it the bell’s song gifted him realisation. Turning, he walked westward without worrying a word of warning to the men in his charge. All caution lost, all wisdom abandoned within the naive fool roaming between bramble and bushes, doubtful of the existence of his quarry.
Not even the shine of the moon could tell how long had passed since Sir Blakewell parted from his companions. Had it been visible at all piercing the leaves and branches of the firs, it would have alluded that the noble man was closing in on his inauspicious destination. His feet still crunching on long dead, dried foliage perhaps deafened him to all else around. The howling wind baring its fangs and the threatening, inaudible whispers of the shadows. The man’s eyes seemed to be fixated straight ahead, his direction seemed, all too conveniently, to be vacant of obstacles. No trees, still standing or not, blocked the path to what remained unclear.
Standing, if it could be described as such, little more than fifty yards from the break in the trees, a tired eye discovered a collection of buildings. Made exclusively of the wood and stone that had been in their way, they faded one at a time into view with each encroaching step of Sir Blakewell. It was bathed in the light of the moon, the towns dilapidation made it unworthy of any accentuation. Crumbling tiled roofs were sunk at the middle, as if being pulled back down to the earth. Dark wooden walls stood profusely rotted, although none had given in to decay of time just yet, it showed every sign that a heavy glance would see the structures collapse. Peeking over the depressed tiles of the roofs, a church tower portended, and suspended above its highest floor, a reflecting bronze bell hung silent. Had one been close enough for a thorough inspection, ornate embossing lined the top and bottom, floral and spiral, with an engraved makers mark that was by now too eroded to determine. The houses and shops huddled around the christian safe haven seeking protection.
At last Solomon broke into the clearing, it had been quite some time since he had last heard the calling chime, but it hardly warranted necessity now. Its guidance was no longer needed. He sauntered forth, not nearly as cautiously as the situation should demand. The town seemed quiet from outside, no-one lurked in the outlying buildings. No candle light flickered through the dirty windows, no creaking doors open in welcome. Alas, a hushed hubbub gave hint of some form of gathering taking place around the centre of the village. Sir Blakewell’s feet, tired of the uneven terrain of the forest, found unusual solace in the shifting of gravel under the leather shoes that had replaced his armoured boots.
On any normal occasion, the unyielding structures of man would be a welcome sight to a wanderer who has spent the last week among the crafts of mother nature’s careful hand. Howbeit, something ill-omened lurked in the night air, surely, Solomon judged, it was more than just a layer of empty mist that alluded to this feeling. He’d felt such gloom the moment he abandoned the concealment of the forest. He should return, make haste back to camp, while still in possession of everything he came with. Come what may, he found himself unable to turn away, unable to do what he should, somehow enamoured by the mystery of this town veiled in shadow.
It wasn’t for another few minutes of slow walking that Sir Blakewell approached the church. Although, by the time he had arrived the crowd was nowhere to be seen; the courtyard lay bare, with exception of a one noose gallows as the centrepiece. The tall doors of oak and iron remained open and steadfast against the breezing wind. Chiselled stone of care and craft that the rest of the buildings envied, formed a grand arch above the entryway and continued all the way up the bell tower. Beyond the doorway laid in wait a vacant hall. Pews were strewn in purposeful disarray; a perfect path still led straight up to the altar. In spite of its inviting convenience, Solomon continued round the building, for there was clearly no soul awaiting discovery.
An eerie silence crept around the side of the church, no shuffling nor murmuring to herald the surprise to yet be seen. Upon rounding the bend, half a dozen rows of tombstones widely spread and in varying degrees of decay stood surrounded by a crude fence, the gate of which Sir Blakewell found himself at. Looking beyond, the noble beheld the sight he was not prepared for. A townsworth of people gathered, all as still as the graves around them. If only a momentary glance was taken, he may have mistook them as statues of lives past, it was the cloth they wore that set them apart from the humanoid memorials carved from stone. Mostly unkempt, they were all wearing ragged cloth of dull brown or grey. The many folk surrounded the entrance to the sole mausoleum, all heads down as if praying, or begging. Solomon became paralysed in a moment of shock, one hand stuck atop the wooden gate. He took an indeterminable length of time to remind himself of his courage, all of which urged him to open the gate and proceed beyond. His own nervous footsteps and heavy breathing were alone creeping around the graveyard. Mere yards from the crowd, Sir Blakewell placed his naked hand upon the pommel of his sword.
“Is no man here high enough of station to meet me?” Projected Solomon, barely able to conjure any confidence. A few heads turned from silent prayer, all of which stared with unblinking eyes laced with confusion. One of the respondents dared to step up to the noble’s request. His cloth seemed the best from among his people; a long black gown seemed to indicate a man of God.
“I believe myself to be the only suitable one.” The man pleaded for hushed conversation with the way he talked.
“A priest. In this God forsaken town? Well, that matters not to me. I seek your assistance. My company has found itself on an unnatural, endless path, we’ve travelled five days more than anticipated and are no closer to our destination.” Sir Blakewell, not seeing any reason for whispering, replied boisterously. The face of the priest became that of concern.
“You must try to stay quiet my lord, it seems that the lord of the Earth forbids your trespassing. And so holds you in waiting until he deems your sins resolved.”
“What has God to do with where I please to go? Stop with your lunacy, and tell me something useful.”
“You are mistaken, this is no matter of the Christian Lord, my son. You are not permitted to leave this forest.”
“There is no lord of the Earth other than that of our divine creator. Just what kind of Blasphemous Cultistry are you attesting?”
“I speak no sacrilege, for I feel more faithful to God now than ever have I before. There is only one God, this is true. The monster of whom I fear is more akin to the devil himself. He claims lordship over that which pleases him, and takes life in the name of his unholy justice. He is an evil beast that fears naught but the consecrated ground of my sacred chapel, even this horrific thing wouldn’t dare provoke God’s ire.”
Sir Blakewell couldn’t comprehend such nonsense, though he wasn’t in desire to hear more. This man, beyond not being deserving of his station, had clearly gone mad. Solomon came to the conclusion that the town had been led astray by a shepherd with a lost soul. His curiosity both sated and still yearning, the outsider took a shaky step back deciding this was not worth his life. Every yard further he strayed from the commonality, he felt fear begin to rise. He quickly found himself with his back against the church wall.
“No safety will be found should you flee. Even if your will manages to drive you from this town, or even this graveyard, the trees are its territory. The chime of the church holds him just beyond our borders, for he knows that God’s people still stand under the protection of the Christian banner. Come, won’t you pray with us?”
The man was stalking up to him, arms open wide in a baiting acceptance of their shared fate. His twisted congregation had stopped their mute prayers and formed either side of him. Terror had taken all precedence. Acting on instinct rather than the courage of his station, Solomon regained control over his mind and bolted through the rotten wooden gate. Back round the church he dashed, tripping on his own imagination. He heard no sounds to indicate a pursuit. A sprint declined into a run, and a run to a walk after he passed the last house before the forest. The trees seemed even more strangling than they had earlier that night. Mist spilling between the trunks, visibility now lasted little more than an arm's length. And yet, Sir Blakewell felt eyes stabbing at him from beyond vision’s limit. Soon, it wasn’t just the trees that seemed suffocating. The air seemed heavier, thicker and infinitely more humid. Breathing became a chore and pressing forward was out of the question. One knee dropped to the floor and a forearm rested on the other. His free hand grasped for the rough trunk of a fir tree. Bark met his palm and he began steadying himself as best as the atmosphere allowed. Panting breaths continued but were now echoing around him. The repetitions were unsettlingly warped, deeper and slower. It wasn’t long before their pace stopped matching. Dread pooling in his stomach, our protagonist fell with his back against the fir tree. He slumped to the floor, residing to his condemnation. Head pressed against the wood, he struggled to let out a sigh. As the last of the air left his lungs, he felt the tree twist and begin to move from beneath him.
With sunrise on the horizon, coming up from where the road had been travelled, Sir Blakewell’s company began packing up the camp. Tents were rolled up and stored in carts and spare firewood was collected after a small breakfast was consumed. Overall the mood seemed merrier, idle chatter was made and even scattered laughter could be heard. All the hardships of the journey so far had believably vanished. The early morning sky was undimmed for the first time in a week; spirits were refreshed of all those that were gearing up to depart. Among them, a man in a black tunic seemed lost. People went to and fro around him, carrying the scarce remainder of their supplies. Yet he stood apparently forgetting his purpose, or at length coming to terms with the lack of one.
“What responsibility slips my mind?” He pondered allowed as he began his route to the horses. There he should find two horses where he should have only found his own. A destrier like many others, but one that had been with him for no small number of years. The other horse however seemed far more decorated, as if it belonged to a noble, although the man could not recall such a person within the group.
“Whose horse is this?” Called the man, seeing the beast had not been claimed. Nobody answered, but word spread throughout the bustling crowd, yet no man claimed it as their own. A shame, thought the man. The horse looked grander than most. It boasted a shiny black coat, despite its scars. It seemed to have a long face, more so than other horses, upon which the man put his hand. He stroked the creature down to its snout and decided to turn it loose, a decision made not without hard thought. He had a fine horse of his own, one he would not abandon lightly, and they had not the supplies to feed more than they needed. After all, the creature must have seen its share of war and abuse. It was time for it to live free. The dark horse lingered for a moment once its bindings were cut, but soon was plodding off down the trail, back into the woods. The ex-squire turned back once mounted and continued homeward bound with the rest of his companions. A few love-worn instruments even broke free from their cases and finally music flowed from the back of carts once more. To the eye, nothing seemed askew. No mention was made of the noble, or his mysterious vanishment. The exclusive evidence that Sir Solomon Blakewell had ever existed was, by now, galloping within a sleeping forest not to be seen again. Hiding beneath the canopy of the never-ending trees which surrounded the forgotten town off Barrett’s road.