II. Rider from the Past

Icy gusts howled through the hole. Flames guttered in the fireplace, casting wild shadows on the walls.

Volfric hobbled to the window. The ache between his legs blasted waves of agony through his thighs and guts. He felt like he might shit at any moment. He held his cheek together with one hand, and each step jarred that, too.

He tried to look out. The wind made tears stand in his eyes. He turned away.

The soldiers who brought Katia from Plumj stood at a respectful distance, eyes lowered. Volfric sensed their fear. The girl's suicide must have pricked their superstition. Or perhaps they thought he might impale them.

He squeezed his cheek more firmly, the better to speak. To one man, he said, "Get the body. I would view the damned remains."

"In the hall, my lord?"

"Display her in the courtyard."

"Yes, my lord."

To the other, he said, "Bring me Fronius."

Bitter fear flashed in the man's eyes, but he hid it quickly, and bowed. "Yes, my lord."

Fronius served as Volfric's personal physician. He pushed the limits of medicine and chirurgery, and pushed beyond them through darker arts. He was apprenticed to Volfric's court magician, the necromancer Baron Rovenmare. That gave even hardened soldiers cause enough to dread him, but Fronius wore a bizarre aspect, as well. Supposedly, he'd been handsome once--the third or fourth son in a noble family. Injuries from military service deformed him into a hunchbacked goblin of a man who hid his face behind an iron mask. Bulging glass goggles covered the eye-holes, and a weird metal arm replaced the one he lost.

When he limped into Volfric's chambers and saw the wound, he said, "Never fear, my lord! That scratch will heal without a trace." He produced the tools of his trade from the black bag clutched in his strange metal fingers, and set right to work.

While Fronius stitched, Volfric seethed. In his heart, he cursed the ungrateful peasants under his protection. They had no idea what he had to do--what he had to be--to secure the peace they now enjoyed. They hated giving up the bride offering, and hated him the more if a child resulted from it. They thought he exacted it merely as some lordly privilege, to gratify the whimsy of his lusts. But he knew the ancient reason for the custom--to fortify the people with strong and noble blood.

Wungoria was a tiny land, surrounded by large, ravenous enemies who might pour over its borders any time. If it wasn't constantly in flames, a field of slaughter, with all kinds of soldiers always tramping through it, plundering and raping, that was only because the House of Volfric strove for centuries to make Wungoria a byword for horror.

When Volfric was very young, his father took every opportunity to show him the devastation marauding armies leave behind. "Look what they've done to us, my son. We must pound the cold, iron nail of fear into their hearts, or they'll do it more, and worse."

Once, his father summoned him to a table of state, and presented him to rulers of neighboring lands. He recognized the names, He'd heard his father curse them many times for one atrocity or another their armies perpetrated on his people. They smirked at young Volfric as they nodded to acknowledge him--sneering, scoffing smiles that dripped contempt. A mere child, he had to force himself not to quail visibly before the warlords, who towered over him like giants.

"Where's King Hunelagc?" one of them demanded. "There's no place even set for him."

"On the contrary," Volfric's father said. "King Hunelagc showed great courage last night. By God, he was the only man among you! While you cowered in the rear, he joined me in the hunt, and even slew a vampire. And so I've reserved a very special place for him."

Servants carried in a platter and set it on the table. On it lay King Hunelagc, trussed, spit-roasted, with an apple in his mouth. Another servant poured his blood into the goblets.

The King was carved and served to the horrified rulers. They stared at their plates, but could only bear to do so from the corners of their eyes.

"Come," the elder Volfric said. "I trust you won't insult my hospitality?"

Young Volfric watched, aghast, as the gruesome meal commenced. The rulers pushed the grisly fare around their plates, and sometimes pretended to raise some to their mouths. Even his father ate with difficulty, and turned green despite the grim resolution on his face.

Volfric grasped that his father was teaching him a lesson in statecraft, and the others a lesson in respect. He recalled all the burnt-out villages his father had shown him, that these men had to answer for. To falter at this point would be disastrous. But his father literally bit off more than he could chew, and looked ready to spit it out, and maybe vomit the rest.

For his father, for his name, for his people, for Wungoria, Volfric stifled his natural feelings of disgust, and tucked into the slab of flesh sitting on his plate. He ate noisily, with relish, drawing all attention from his father to himself. He stared around the table, meeting each ruler's eyes until they looked away, until he'd stared down every one of them, then began again at the beginning, until they all sat staring at their laps and didn't dare raise their eyes even a flicker. When he finished, he washed the meat down with the blood, and slammed his goblet on the table. He wiped his sleeve dramatically across his mouth, and belched as loudly as he could.

Later, alone in his bedchamber, he threw it all up. It would be months before he could touch meat of any kind again. He wept for what he'd done. All the fear he'd had to quash rose again to shake him through the night.

But in that moment, his beaming father flourished an arm at him and said, "My friends, behold the future of Wungoria."

Those once-proud rulers rose from that table, broken men. They returned to their own castles to dodder away their years in the oblivion of drink.

Unfortunately, their years were few. By the time Volfric could lift a two-handed sword without staggering under its weight, he had to teach a new generation of successors to fear Wungoria all over again, this time on the battlefield. That was when he learned the value of spreading Volfric seed among the peasantry. His father pointed out that Volfric blood ran in the veins of all the fiercest fighters.

Katia certainly had Volfric blood in her. That naked slip of a girl showed less fear of him than armed and armored warriors he'd faced in battle. With an army possessed of her fighting spirit--even an army of girls--Wungoria need never fear invasion. His rage at her defiance softened to regret for her death. What a daughter! He spoke in jest of making her his Countess, but what a wife she might have been to him, and what a mother to his sons. What a waste to have lost her. He began to wonder if Rovenmare or Fronius could bring her back to life.

"There, my lord," Fronius said, pushing a looking glass into his hands, interrupting his thoughts. "You see?"

Volfric looked. The gaping hole Katia had punched through his cheek was now a row of sutures and a neat red line. Gingerly, he ran a finger over it. It still felt sore, but nothing like a fresh wound.

"Apply this ointment in the morning and at night, and we'll have those sutures out before you know it."

"Thank you, Fronius. I can always count on you."

"But of course, my lord."

"One more thing." Volfric tried not to let the fear creep into his voice. "Where she kicked me--" He placed a hand protectively over his groin. "I worry for my seed. Make sure she didn't damage me down there."

"Well, let's get those breeches off." Fronius knelt between Volfric's legs to examine him. Eventually, he stood and said, "No damage, my lord. Your seed is safe. You may scatter it as you desire."

"Aaahh, my seed!" It startled Volfric, how much tension melted away at once, on hearing his physician's words. He hadn't realized how scared he was for his virility, until Fronius reassured him.

He noticed, then, something he'd been hearing for some time outside his window--the baying of hounds. It sounded like the whole pack had been turned out from the kennels and set loose through the castle.

"Come along, Fronius. I may need you again."

Volfric stomped out into the snowy night, with Fronius scampering to keep up. Torches and lanterns swarmed everywhere. The clamor of barking rang from the walls and paving-stones. He turned a full circle, taking it all in. Men ran hounds in the courtyard and on the ramparts. They lowered the poor beasts in harnesses from tower windows to treacherous high places that couldn't otherwise be reached.

In the center of it all, the man charged with finding Katia stood with her underthings wadded in his fist. He shouted orders and directed the activity. A shrill edge in his voice betrayed his desperation.

Volfric seized him by the scruff. "What the Deuce are you doing? What is this about?"

The man's trembling increased almost to a seizure. "Oh my lord--!"

A scream cut his answer short.

Volfric looked up.

A soldier slipped from an icy pinnacle. He screamed and flailed all the way down. The snow muffled the wet thud of his impact. A gruesome halo, a scarlet stain on white, ringed his broken head.

Volfric scowled at the man in his grip. "Now, an explanation."

"My lord, she's nowhere to be found!"

"What?"

"I swear! No corpse. No blood. No anything! As if she vanished in the sky."

"Vanished in the sky!" Volfric looked around again at the soldiers and hounds. They were everywhere. He shouted, "Stop! Stop it! Stop this nonsense now!"

They all froze where they stood, and quickly hushed the hounds.

"If you haven't found her yet," Volfric said, "more looking won't find her. Not here. Not in the castle. Did no one see her fall?"

"My lord, some heard the glass break, but none looked."

"None?"

"None, my lord."

"There is deviltry afoot here," Fronius suggested.

"And her husband sprang some deviltry on us down in the village!" the soldier said. "He tried to bribe us with more gold than he could have gotten any other way. Father Gregory even came right out and called it Satan's dung!"

"Then we're off to see her husband." Volfric released the trembling man, and patted his shoulder. "You've done well. Now ready my carriage." He turned to address them all, and said, "Perhaps we'll find her in Plumj!"

None smiled at this announcement. He knew they wouldn't. They'd cross themselves as soon as they thought he wasn't looking. Already, no doubt, they suspected black magic in the girl's disappearance. If they found her in the village, how else could she have got there? But first they had to get there, and the road would not be easy. The commotion in the castle had stirred every wild night creature on the mountain.

Volfric scorned such worries. He grabbed a spear, rapped the butt on paving-stones, and shouted for haste.

#

The drawbridge lowered. The portcullis clattered up. From the castle poured a torrent of black horses. Riders in red leather armor waved torches and swords.

In their midst, the Count traveled in his lordly black-and-scarlet carriage. He sipped brandy from crystal. The storm of wrath that thundered down the mountain soothed his nerves. He closed his eyes.

The carriage and horsemen roared through the valley, into Plumj. No night-watch greeted them. Even the animals cowered and kept silent. Every shutter on every cottage stood closed and fastened. Not one light peeped between two slats. Even as Volfric swore and shouted, impaled Katia's husband, set his home ablaze, and hoisted him on the village square, every other cottage remained dark and deathly still.

Volfric frowned. Jacob had told him nothing.

Nor did Fronius find evidence of any spell that might have spirited Katia from the castle. Volfric told him to check her parents' home.

Fronius soon returned, and said, "She's not there, either. The only signs of magic were common peasant charms. There was a hearth spirit, a tad livelier than most." He shrugged. "I banished it. I took the liberty, as well, of setting fire to the place."

"Good," Volfric said. "Wherever she may be, she'll find no comfort here." He gave the sullen order to return to the castle. He indulged in a last look at Jacob's burning cottage.

Once settled in the cushions of the carriage, he calmed himself with brandy. So, Katia was neither in the castle nor the village. Where could she be? He saw no point in searching further. One more option remained, though, and he determined to employ it.

The instant he set foot in the castle courtyard, he motioned for a servant to draw near.

"Announce me to Baron Rovenmare. Wake him if you must. I require his service, and shall call on him--" Volfric consulted the clock-tower. "--at midnight, in his chambers."

The servant couldn't conceal his fright, but hurried off to execute the command without delay.

Spattered gore from three impalements obliged Volfric to bathe and make another toilette. After he washed all the blood away, he noticed in the looking glass how wretchedly his hair had been singed, and how bad the bare patch looked where Fronius shaved his beard to treat the wound. He couldn't tolerate the sight of them. He fussed at them with shears and a razor for a while, before losing patience and shaving hair and beard completely off.

He put on a simple, almost priestly black garment. He refreshed himself with a supper of cold hen, bread, and wine.

Midnight approached.

Volfric armed himself against the darkness with a lantern, and turned his steps toward a remote wing of the palace that had fallen into disuse and gloomy disrepair. There, his footfalls echoed along passages, up stairs. He crossed a grey, empty gallery. A portion of the roof had collapsed. Drafts moaned through the space. A door at the far end opened onto the ramparts.

The moon had passed its apex, and declined toward a horizon of mountain peaks.

Volfric waded through snow to the battlements. He looked over the edge, down a thousand plunging feet of sheer castle wall and cliff, onto a landscape of bald crags. What a spectacle it was in moonlight. Anxious, though, to unpuzzle the mystery of Katia's disappearance, he stepped back from the brink and continued on his way.

A tower of gleaming white marble rose ahead. Reaching it always proved difficult. It stood some distance from the main palace, on a section of the wall that crumbled in places.

Despite the tower's beauty, Volfric hated it. Dark and shameful secrets led to its erection. He alone knew all of them.

#

On the birthday when Volfric attained legal adulthood, he arranged his father's death. He succeeded to the title and lands at the earliest moment he could take full control of them.

For generations on end, the wizard Elijas had watched over the family. On the day of Volfric 's triumph, Elijas made no appearance at the ceremony or feast. Everyone remarked the old man's absence. Volfric noted it himself, with irritation. He sent for Elijas, inquiring whether anything was the matter.

The servant returned, bowed, and said, "My lord, he invites you to attend him in his hut."

"Invites me?" Volfric said. "Is he ill?"

The servant bowed lower. "He did not seem so to me."

"I can imagine no other explanation." Volfric excused himself from the great hall, where the reception proceeded in his honor.

As he crossed the courtyard toward Elijas's humble dwelling, he encountered some servants loading packs on a donkey.

"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded. "I gave no leave for anyone to quit the castle at this time."

"My lord," one of the servants said, "Elijas ordered that his donkey be prepared."

There was no explaining that away. It was plainly an affront to Volfric. All of it was. He stormed into the little hut.

The greybeard sat beside the fire, smoking a pipe. He didn't stand when Volfric entered, but pointedly continued rocking in his chair.

"Elijas, your behavior astonishes me."

Elijas said nothing at first, but fixed a penetrating stare on Volfric.

The young Count clenched his jaw.

Elijas took the pipe from his mouth. "You murdered your father. I won't denounce you. Not publicly. I only take my leave of you. I won't remain under the roof of a parricide."

"Fine words from a man who served my father and grandfather."

Elijas sniffed. "There's justice enough in the reproach. Those men were no saints. But you! I've cast an eye into your future. You're a monster, and time will only make you more of one. It were better you had died stillborn."

"I think you'd better go now." Volfric"s voice quavered with rage. "Wise man, to have packed your bags already."

"I go," Elijas said, "and with me goes your peace. You can form no conception, young man, how many curses rain down on your family, or how many restless spirits seek revenge. From this day, may these troubles pass to you."

"And may the Devil surprise you on your chamber pot, you son of a buggering goat!" Volfric shouted. "Get out! If I see you again, your head on a pike!"

Volfric knew, though, how truly Elijas spoke. When he was a child, his nurses whispered legends of specters who haunted the House of Volfric. At night, those specters really tried to get him. The most awful among them was a hooded rider, galloping from great distances at terrifying speeds, bearing down, reaching out an armored hand to grab him. Elijas's magic held the Rider at bay, but never banished it entirely.

Throughout Volfric's youth, at moments when he thought he was alone, he might turn around outdoors, or glance out a window, only to see the Rider watching, watching, always watching from the darkness of the hood, searching and waiting for an opportunity, while the horse snorted and pawed the ground.

Faced with Elijas's departure, then, installment of a new court magician became the young Count's first order of business. He knew, indeed, that if he found no replacement before nightfall, he most likely wouldn't live to see the morning.

Volfric again joined his guests in the hall. Vaguely, he remembered rumors he'd often disregarded, concerning a man known as Baron Rovenmare. He turned the conversation to those rumors, which everyone took up with great enthusiasm. Rovenmare, they claimed, was a necromancer--a wizard who specialized in death. He squandered his fortune, not through gambling or riot, but through the costly pursuit of unspeakable arts. Nobody had any clue where he might be found.

Volfric ordered all his troops, servants, and castle guard to go forth at once and find Rovenmare before the sun set. This extraordinary command, delivered in the hall before the assembled guests, raised a murmur of alarm. But Volfric insisted the merriment continue. He went among the tables and poured the wine himself, in place of the servants he dispatched.

The guests remained, though uneasily. Evening stole over them. Volfric lit tapers and torches. He felt all eyes on him, on his shaking hands. He felt the fear spreading from himself, throughout the hall.

The new moon hid its face.

The outer darkness was complete.

The hoofbeats of a single horse clopped in the courtyard. An eerie clicking noise accompanied them.

Volfric stood petrified.

The great hall doors burst open.

A skeletally thin and pale man, clad all in white, rode a horse's skeleton up the steps, into the hall.

Everyone gaped.

Only the bones clicking together broke the silence.

The solitary stranger rode the skeleton across the floor. He stopped directly before Volfric.

"I'm Rovenmare. You look so startled! Did you not expect me?"

Volfric eyed the horse.

Rovenmare grinned. "She neither eats nor shits."

Volfric composed himself enough to invite Rovenmare into a side chamber. The necromancer dismounted, and retired there with him.

Was it fatigue from the day's whirl of activities? Or was it the shock of Elijas's confrontation? Or was it the terror of night wound so tightly in his heart? Did Rovenmare's bizarre arrival and appearance overawe him? Whatever the reason, Count Volfric found himself a weakened, beaten man. To his everlasting shame, he fell on his knees. He unburdened himself to Rovenmare of all his fears. He wept like a woman, like a frightened little girl. He begged the Baron to enter his service and fill the vacant office of court magician on any terms he cared to name.

Despite his embarrassed circumstances, Rovenmare made a show of much reluctance. He sat, while Volfric knelt and groveled. At last the Baron relented, so far as to name some terms he might consider. Volfric agreed to pay all his debts. And to provide him the means and leisure to continue his studies. And to install him in a tower of the purest, whitest marble, built according to strict specifications.

"You do agree to the last-named term?" said Rovenmare, amazed.

"I do!"

"Well, then, how can I refuse? I humbly accept the responsibilities of the office. From what you've told me, I had better not waste another moment! I begin at once. Now go. Rest easy. Nor curses or spirits will harm you on my watch."

#

That was many years ago. Rovenmare proved as good as his word. No curses or spirits ever harmed Volfric in that time. Even the spectral Rider who stalked him through his youth never appeared to him again.

Still, Volfric never forgot that Rovenmare saw him humiliated. He never forgave him for it, either.

The castle clock struck midnight. Volfric stood at the tower door. When the last doleful tone echoed away, he knocked.

Rovenmare answered. He looked more freakish now than when he first arrived. Depilatories and bleaches had removed all hair, even his eyebrows, and turned his skin as white as the surrounding marble. The only hair he kept was the beard on his chin. This, also, he bleached totally white. He wore it as a single thin braid down to his waist, with tiny bones woven in. If he seemed emaciated before, long periods of fasting had reduced him further toward his skeletal ideal. His robes, of course, were spotless white.

He looked twice at Volfric's shaven head. He said nothing, but the glint of approval in his eye irritated Volfric.

"My lord." Rovemare stood aside and bowed.

Volfric stepped into a blindingly white hall, illuminated not by candles but by an eerily pure and omnipresent radiance. It normally raised his hackles, but tonight Katia preoccupied him. He dispensed with all ceremony, and launched immediately into the reason for his call. He told all he knew about her disappearance.

Rovenmare steepled his fingers while he thought. He drummed the tips together. They were so bony they clicked.

"Well?" said Volfric.

"Well! No explanation leaps to mind. But I know how to find an answer. Come."

Volfric followed Rovenmare up into the tower. The winding marble stair brought them to a white chamber, in the center of which sunk a pool of water, long and broad and deep enough to swim in. Human skeletons lined the pool's bleached walls, shoulder-to-shoulder all the way around.

Rovenmare knelt at the edge, and disturbed the surface with his fingers. He muttered something to the water, or to the skeletons.

The skulls opened their jaws. They exhaled milky tendrils, which twisted together in the depths, merging into a broad, pale stain that expanded as it floated up.

"Nearer, my lord," Rovenmare said.

Volfric looked. He leaned closer.

Rovenmare whispered, "What do you see?"

A vivid scene spread over the pool's surface. Flurries twinkled like a universe of falling stars under the crescent moon. The large, round, stained-glass window gleamed, intact, unshattered. Above it, on the snowy slope of the pinnacle, perched the hooded Rider on the horse.

Volfric jumped back. "What is this?"

Rovenmare winced. "We, um, look into the past, my lord. To see what happened to the girl."

Katia exploded through the window. Colored shards of glass appeared to fly out of the pool.

Volfric threw his arms up.

The horse reared and neighed and pawed the sky.

"Oh my God!" Volfric shuddered, and crossed himself.

The Rider drove the horse over the edge. They raced down the tower's side. The horseshoes struck sparks, and stamped fiery orange prints into the stone. The cloak billowed to reveal a suit of armor. The hood still hid the face. Almost level with Katia, the horse bounded from the wall into empty air. The Rider stretched out a gauntleted hand, closed an arm around Katia, pulled her in over the saddle, and looked back. Though the shadow of the hood obscured the eyes, Volfric felt them train on him in hate and exultation. The old childhood terrors clutched his heart.

"Can it see us?" he asked under his breath. He shouted, "Can it see us?"

Rovenmare shook his head.

The horse galloped across the sky, through a chiaroscuro of moonlight, cloud, and snow. The Rider waved a gesture of contempt back toward the castle.

The water boiled. The image dissolved.

Volfric turned away. "God damn it, Rovenmare! You haven't banished that horse and fiend?"

Rovenmare hung his head. He wouldn't meet Volfric's glare. He actually blushed. "My lord, have you seen them once in the time that I have been here?"

"Yes, now! Have they lurked out of my seeing all along?"

"Please understand, complete exorcism is nearly impossible, if a spirit's identity in life remains unknown."

"Know it then! I want them sent to Hell. And I want Katia. She's mine. She belongs to me. I want her!"

Rovenmare bowed lower than he ever had before. "Yes, my lord. Your wish is my command."

2 comments:

jaakko said...

Nice villains, although "nice" might not be the best word to describe those deranged bastards ;-) I can't wait to read what happens next.

Curt said...

Thanks Jaakko--more to come soon!