The Ghost and the Soberwalled Wood – excerpt from The Bride of War

Just a taste of the other full length novel I’ll be Epublishing this month, hopefully before Christmas.

Surprised by her own boldness, but still flushed with an excitement she had scarce felt since before the Procession, she returned to the Ram Hill Pass and made her way deftly though the snow. She felt as if she could spring and run like a roe deer through the woodlands south and east of the Cloven Lands. She made her way along Goat Road, which was lined with tree and scrub bush at the foot of the steep inner face of the Kymer Mountain chain. Houses were back far enough from the road that anyone looking out would no doubt fail to recognize her passing.

She marched on like a woman possessed, until at last she came to her senses and found herself at the place where the Goat Road met the edge of the Aachen Valley Stream past the Addler stable, on the northwestern edge of the village. Realizing her mistake, she turned to retrace her steps, when she thought she saw a child trudging across the snow-covered pasture toward her. Not sure what made her stop, she watched the girl until it occurred to her that the girl was not dressed for the cold. Then she paid even more careful attention, and noticed the girl was walking smoothly across the surface of the snow. Behind her, the snow was completely unbroken.

Cassandra’s eyes grew wide as the girl came closer, and she began to recognize the features, though not the face. Not like this. They were features similar to her Leanna, but younger and darker, with emerald green eyes. Cassandra’s breath caught in her throat when she realized what she was looking at. Whom she was looking at.

“Maria? Is that you? Are you really here?”

The ghost girl smiled and nodded slowly, crossing the frozen stream and coming closer. When she drew close enough, she took Cassandra’s hand and lead her across the ice and out onto the hardened surface of the snow across the pasture. At first, the density of the snow’s crust was enough to support her weight. However, once they were a few yards away from the stream, her legs began to sink into the snow, and she had to trudge quickly to keep up with Maria.

Cassandra couldn’t think straight, having never seen the ghost of a past bride before. She had heard of such things–everyone in Aachen had–but she had never been witness to it herself. She had never heard of anyone touching the ghost and actually feeling anything before. She wondered idly if she might be able to do this when her time with the Dragon had ended. This led her to morbid thoughts of how long her tenure would be, and what she would look like when Martin carried her body to its berth in the crypt.

As if sensing her thoughts, Maria turned to her and tilted her head, and then squeezed her hand and lead on through the snow. Cassandra could no longer feel the rush of enthusiasm she had felt upon leaving Martin on Ram Hill. All she could feel now were the dwindling hours of her life, and the feel of snow creeping up her skirts and into her boots. As they drew near the tree line of The Soberwalled Wood, her mood grew darker to match. Blessedly, the snow thinned out under the canopy of trees. Very little passed through the dense canopy of fir trees, including light, thus lending the forest its ominous name. Townsfolk were cautioned to stay out of The Soberwalled Wood, for fear of unseen predators living within.

Cassandra could hear no sound from Maria in the growing darkness, but could still feel her hand pulling insistently. What she did hear in the trees was a near hush, as the breeze out on the pasture became completely muffled. There was a soft creaking as the tall trees brushed gently against one another. And then there was another noise. At first it was a soft clicking sound, as if someone were tapping a wooden spoon on a table rapidly. Then it seemed to echo and multiply, as if there were many drummers rapping out of time on wooden drums.

Cassandra peered long and hard for any glimmer in the faint light from beyond the trees. When she had nearly given up hope, and the sounds of tapping had grown so close that she reflexively flinched as it stopped, she saw something that sent a chill through her. Several tiny points of light, all grouped close together in a circle. Then she heard a soft hissing, and reflexively jumped to one side. She couldn’t tell if the thing in the darkness had jumped for her or not, but she heard a great clattering noise, followed by more clicking. She lost her grip on little Maria’s spectral hand and began panicking. The sounds seemed to be coming from all around her, and she had no idea where to turn. She made out more glittering in the darkness, picked out by the light from beyond the trees glancing off the approaching shapes.

Spiders. Larger than any she had ever seen. She could almost sense them all around her. She recoiled in horror and began running in the direction Maria had been pulling her, hoping in vain to run into a ghost that left no footprints in the snow. She could almost make out the shapes of trees, and things that did not look much like trees. She ran in desperation, having no idea how to get back to the pasture without breaking from the path she could scarcely tell she was still on. The sounds were still clattering through the trees behind her, but she had no idea where she was going, and feared they would catch her before long.

She felt the path rising slightly ahead of her as she ran, and thought she was perhaps starting to run up the shallow side of the Kymer Mountain Range, when her foot caught on a root jutting out of the ground in the path. She stumbled and sprawled in the dark soil, padded by her winter clothing, but still feeling bruised and sore. She clambered to her feet and listened for the approaching spiders. There were still sounds of clacking in the distances, but the air grew still now. Something about the air felt moist here, like a pasture after a spring rain. Indeed, she heard something she hadn’t expected to hear; water dripping.

Cassandra stepped forward on the path, but it seemed to steeply drop ahead of her. Carefully picking her way down, hands flailing and reaching out for branches to help her descent, she reached a point a few yards in where the depression seemed to level out somewhat. Stepping a little further forward, she discovered why. There was a pool of water in the path ahead. Peering carefully through the gloom, she thought she could make out an expanse of nearly still water shimmering faintly, stretching what seemed for several yards in every direction. The depression she had climbed into seemed to be a bowl in the base of the mountain, covered by the trees so thoroughly that none in the town seemed aware there was a pond within.

Forgetting her fear for a moment, she stood up and started to make her way around the edge of the water. She began to hear other noises, less like the spiders, but no less unnerving in the near-darkness. Stepping as quickly as she dared, she tried to make her way back toward the pasture, or as near as the pond would take her. She thought she might be getting close to the point nearest the pasture when she caught a glimpse of something glowing softly ahead of her. A familiar shape seemed to coalesce near a great shaded obstruction in the path. She drew near and found Maria looking at her, and beckoning her to come closer.

“Maria, where were you? I could not see you, and you left me to those spiders. Have you led me in here to be devoured? Is this your way of helping me avoid the Dragon?”

The girl did not speak, and Cassandra gave up before asking her how she can be visible in the dark now, but not before in the trees. When she came close enough, she saw why; nestled deep in the roots of a tree older and thicker than any she had seen before, she found something bathing them in pale golden light. Kneeling in the soft packed mud of the bank by the pond, she crawled forward under the heaviest of the roots to get nearer the source of the glow.

When she was practically inside of the tree, she saw three things. The first was a strange piece of golden metal the size of the serving tray they use in the Mayor’s house for Christmas. It had patterns of small coloured gemstones radiating from the center, where a large red gem rested. The gems softly twinkled in the light of a cluster of bright white crystals, which had been nestled in the knot of wood directly overhead and behind her. And then she saw the third thing. Another spider, covered in graying fur and spanning about the size of a hunting dog, nestled in the hollowed out recess leading up into the tree above.

Before she had time to scream, the spider sprang down onto her, and she could not shake it off, so confined was she by the narrow passage under the tree roots. The spider sank its fangs into her neck, and she felt a burning sensation flood into her body. She screamed and cried, and feared that the spider would somehow spin a web and trap her body up in the dark recesses of the hollow tree. Instead, it merely climbed off of her slackening form. Her vision dimming, she saw it crawl up into the darkness, but she could just make out the sight of eight twinkling eyes swimming in the blackness above her. Before she passed out of consciousness, she had time to wonder idly how long it would take to die.

© 2011 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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