The haunted eyes come in nightmares, mocking and shaming me while I sleep. I possess no control over them, except when I choose not to succumb to slumber.
Tonight is one such night. I am sitting beside the fire in a sturdy black oak chair trying to shake off the chill which seeps into my old bones from the cold marble walls of the monastery. My chamber, in which I have lived nearly forty seasons, is modest, as it should be for one of the Devoted.
Across my lap rests a rusted sword which I draw out from beneath my bed on sleepless nights, hoping it will ward off the nightmares. At one time it was a solid blade wielded by a firm hand . . . mine. I lift up the blade and inspect it in the dull firelight. Rust flakes off and falls to my robed lap like dried blood.
Whatever possessed me to take up such a vile weapon, such a tool of destruction? I cannot say. The folly of youth is mysterious and not meant to be understood. Perhaps it was honor, or even chivalry? Yes, that was it.
Returning the sword to my lap, I stare into the fire and can’t help but wonder if chivalry is dead. No, it is not dead, only dormant. But for me the chivalry died forty years ago, in the folly of my youth when I was . . .
A black mist clung to the plains, choking the light which filtered through dark rain clouds. The Warrior drifted through the twilight fog, not caring where he was going or where he would arrive, only that he was moving across the face of the Land.
Cold rain began to fall just as he came upon the nameless, foreboding farming village nestled against the shoulders of the foothills. This was not his destination, it just lay in his path, and convenience caused him to stop his steady jog across the plains. As he entered the village, the citizens noticed him and pointed at his black weapons and dark raiment. They whispered behind his back and shunned his presence when he sought shelter from the elements. The Warrior was once again branded and marked as evil; not because of his actions, or his beliefs, or even his failings, but because of his attire and outer countenance. To be so branded troubled the Warrior greatly.
The inhabitants of the village were dour and thin, with perpetual scowls hanging on their brows. They spoke not among themselves and hurriedly scuttled through the muddy, narrow streets huddled beneath lifeless gray cloaks, seemingly seeking solace in isolation. Eventually shelter the Warrior did find, for there is always one who will overlook prejudice and fear when there is gold to trade hands.
He attempted to befriend citizens at the inn that night, but was met with much resistance. They feared him and his presence as if he possessed some unknown deadly plague. Or were they perhaps jealous of his attempted friendliness? Paranoia and fear had a grip upon their souls, for it showed in their haggard eyes and their puppet like actions.
Sleep came quickly that night, but was interrupted as the Warrior nodded off. A scream pierced the night, echoing through the claustrophobic avenues of the village. Lights twinkled to life in the darkness outside his window which overlooked the village square and its public well. Citizens peered out their windows, stealing brief glimpses behind gripped curtains. But the Warriors keen eyes noticed that which was overlooked by the others: a small, pale skinned figure hopping across the roofs in the wan moonlight. Slowly the lights are extinguished, the citizens returned to their beds, and the Warrior is left alone searching the rooftops and wondering.
Morning dawned gray and bleak. Clinging mists snaked through the streets and kissed the windows of the inn. The Warrior had become accustomed to such weather during his travels, so it troubled him little. As he was about to depart the village, and place behind him the strange community and even stranger events of the previous night, he was approached by a well dressed man who requests his presence at his home. The Warrior hesitated, then agreed, eager to befriend someone who would judge him in a fair manner and lend assistance if it was asked.
The Man and Warrior trudged through the misty morning towards the edge of the village where a cozy cottage was nestled in a copse of trees. Few people were out and about at that early hour, yet if they were, they would have questioned the motives of the Man escorting the shadowy Warrior.
When entering the cottage, the Warrior’s senses are assaulted by warm and wondrous fragrances he had not experienced in many months. The smells and sights of home, hearth, and family. The source of the aroma soon showed herself as the Wife of the Man. She was busy preparing a large breakfast for the two men who sat down at the table in front of the fire. During their exchange of tales the Warrior noticed that the Wife was at that graceful age between budding youth and wilting beauty.
Many things were discussed by the men, including the nature of the Man’s village and the adventures of the Warrior’s travels. Soon they were laughing and joking, but still the Man refused to discuss the nature of the Warrior’s invitation until after their fast had been broken.
The Wife began doting over the two in her gracious manner, never complaining, always smiling, and eager to shower hospitality on her guest. A repast of dried fruit, cheeses, fried potatoes, steaming eggs, and pickled onions was served. The Warrior marveled at how an island of normalcy could seemingly exist in a sea of despair. When the meal was complete, the Wife quickly cleaned up, kissed her balding husband on the forehead, and disappeared quietly into another room.
A bag of gold suddenly appeared on the table while the Warrior watched the Wife leave, secretly wishing he could meet such a lovely woman and settle down to a life of peace and prosperity. The motive behind the invitation began to reveal itself as the Man told the Warrior about the sickly, hunched, pale skinned creature that had been terrorizing their village for months. Many people had disappeared into the night, including small children. The Man asked that the Warrior accept the bag of gold in exchange for his services in removing the vile creature from their village.
Realization dawned in the Warrior’s head. He grasped at the chance to help the people of the village even though they prejudiced him during his short stay. He refused the gold, but agreed to help break the grip of terror holding the citizens hostage.
As the Warrior left the cottage, the Wife appeared from her self imposed exile and pecked him on the cheek in a motherly way. Gazing into her stark hazel eyes, he realized that there was far more to this lovely woman than he would ever hope to know. He smiled at her, grasped the Man’s proffered hand, and departed, feeling he had been judged fairly.
Several nights passed and the Warrior slept not. He instead waited steadfastly by the window of his room in the upper story of the dilapidated inn. Upon a cold and blustery night he finally espied the sickly shape of the craven beast flitting deftly across the village rooftops beneath a wan moon.
Just as the Warrior was about to leave his room to give pursuit, the Craven climbed down the side of a structure and made its way to the village well. The beast descended into the well and disappeared from his sight.
The Warrior was soon in the village square where he stripped off his weathered armor and peered into the gloomy hole. Dressed in only his breeches and bringing only his sword, he climbed down the rough shaft of the well until he reached the cold, black water. The Craven was nowhere to be seen.
His body parted the black water and he plunged deep – until he was rewarded by discovering a narrow waterway leading into the inky blackness. Feeling his way blindly through the water, the Warrior traversed the tunnel until he felt his head break the surface of the water.
The echoing of the shifting water told him he was in a cavern. He drew his blade with a scraping ring that reverberated against the walls, and whispered an arcane word. Blue flames licked up and down its length revealing his surroundings. Strange screeching noises assaulted his ears from the narrow tunnel which led away from the pool.
The Warrior pulled himself from the sucking water, steam rising from his warm body into the chill air, and began traversing the tunnel. Monstrosities slithered and scurried beneath his feet – fat wormy things that lived in the darkness and gnawed at the foundations of the World. Bones of unknown origin littered the floor of the tunnel, and they cracked and snapped beneath his feet like so many dried twigs. Wispy tendrils of cobwebs choked his breathing and stuck to his face causing him to stumble on many occasions.
The screeching and chattering stopped. Perhaps the Craven realized there was an intruder within its lair. The Warrior soon reached the dead end of the tunnel and began to feel and tap the stone walls of the passageway. Seemingly satisfied, he pushed on the wall and it opened into a small chamber smelling strangely of onions, potatoes, and dried fruit.
Stumbling into the musty room, the Warrior was confronted by the evil he had been stalking. Standing in the flickering light of his sword was the Craven: small, pale, hairless, all teeth and claws, with unspeakable evil burning in its eyes.
The Craven screeched and flung itself at the Warrior, becoming a whirlwind of deadly energy. The Warrior had little time to react and was quickly covered with blistering scratches. The enchanted sword entered the Craven and robbed it of its life — if indeed that is what it ever possessed. It fell face down to the floor of the earthy room. The form of the Craven started to shift, slowly, as if surrounded black smoke, until the Warrior stood over the body of a woman. Confused and trembling, the Warrior backed away from the body, then stopped.
He reaches down and cautiously turned the woman over. What he saw burned itself into his minds eye, and embedded itself into his soul forever.
Staring back at him were hazel eyes . . .
I wake to find myself on the dusty floor of my chamber, screaming in the darkness. Only hot embers remain of the fire which once burned brightly.
My ancient bones creak as I pull myself from the floor and throw a timber upon the hearth. I doubt that my screams have stirred the other disciples, for they are used to my nightmares, even though I am not.
The timber takes and my chamber is once again bathed in soft, yellow light. Upon the floor, next to where I awoke, lay my trusty sword – broken asunder. I gather up the shards and sit in my chair, not believing that this has happened. The protection of the sword’s eldritch energies were spent long ago, and there was nothing to save it from the ravages of time. It was now broken, like myself. No longer would I have its protection to guide me through the long nights.
Yet perhaps this portends an end to my suffering – that I no longer require its security. As my sword lay broken before me, so also may the nightmarish events of Ninfalden be broken, releasing my tortured conscience from her eyes.
Tonight I shall bury the shards, and with it all the pains, doubts, and mistakes which have plagued me since my youth. Perhaps I shall again sleep a fitful sleep, and perhaps tomorrow I shall die a peaceful death.
Author’s note: I was recently going through some folders in my filling cabinet and discovered a print out of this story . . . from a dot matrix printer! By extrapolation and memory I estimate I wrote this 22 years ago. I did clean it up some, but it reads fundamentally the same.