Apr. 27th, 2011

applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] twilight)
It was morning, barely first light, and gray and damp as a drowned mouse. Rain had fallen steadily for the last week, slicking the forest floor in dark mud and sodden leaves that clung to the bottoms of Mara’s boots in a thick layer. The world smelled of earth and rain and decay, and the first chill fingers of autumn threaded through the humid air. Perfect conditions for a morning hunt, had it not been for the unnatural quiet that draped itself over the wood. There was no birdsong, none of the little rustles and snaps of animals moving through the trees – it seemed to Mara that she couldn’t even hear the soft sound of her own breathing in the weighted air.

If hunting were her only concern, perhaps the soundless wood might not have unsettled her so deeply. Today, though, Mara was tracking much bigger quarry than deer or rabbit, and the lack of the usual forest sounds set her skin to tingling. For all she knew, she might be the prey of some other hunter, moving silent as the shadows behind her.

A light, misting rain began to fall, and Mara shuddered under her woolen cloak. Desperately she longed to give the bird call that would bring one of the other scouts to her aid, to tell someone else of the creeping dread that had settled in the pit of her stomach, but she didn’t dare. If her fears were well-founded, such a thing would bring the creatures on her so quickly that by the time any scout arrived, whatever was left of her would have no tales to tell.

That thought made her queasy. She could still remember the bright slash of blood across the new-frosted ground two mornings ago, when the little village of Pondbridge had been awakened by a scream. She had been dreaming of her father, gone these past five months, when the sound had ripped through her sleep like a knife. Without even thinking about it, she had roused from her bed, wrapped her father’s old hunting cloak about her shoulders, and raced after the crowd.

By the time the first runners had reached him, Allyn Thomas had no hope of surviving. His throat had been torn open, and what little life he had left was emptying in thick pulses onto the frozen ground. Many of the villagers retched to see such savagery, but Mara had only stared, transfixed by the crimson spill of blood.

Allyn had come to the little village only a few months before, gaunt with hunger and plagued by dark memories. He was not an old man - in fact, he claimed to be only a few years older than Mara herself, and she barely fifteen - but the fear he carried around with him had aged him decades. Already his dark hair glinted with threads of silver, and his face was waxy and lined. His voice was soft and wheedling, and his fingers plucked nervously at whatever was at hand.

And he was always whispering, telling his stories of monsters that did not die. Every night he would come to the tavern and seat himself next to some wary patron, filling his ears with creatures of darkness - creatures that poisoned the blood of living men and feasted on the flesh of innocents so that they could live forever. The stories frightened many of the smaller children, so much so that Allyn had been subjected to a rather stern talking-to by old John Farn, who was the king's man in Pondbridge. Still he spun his tales, if not in the tavern then in the streets and the smallmarket, muttering urgently to any who might venture near.

Mara herself had not been frighted by his stories. She felt sorry for the poor man more than anything, trapped as he was in the nightmarish world of his own mind. She had seen men so turned before, after some horrible tragedy befell them, and she knew that Allyn Thomas must have suffered greatly to imagine such monstrosities. Unfortunately, Allyn must have had a sense for her sympathy, as he often sought her out when no other was willing to listen to his macabre fantasies. She had heard more than her fair share of blood and death and evil, and had soon learned to loathe the sight of his emaciated face and dark, wounded eyes.

His death had changed everything, of course. Allyn Thomas had died in the center of town, far from the roaming creatures of the wood. The wound in his neck might well have come from a wolf if not for that, that and the marks on his arms. The circular bruises formed a clear pattern – finger marks, dug so deeply into the flesh that they left black and purple stains on Allyn’s white flesh.

"Who could've done this to him?" John Farn had wondered, looking around at the small cluster of villagers. Mara had looked herself, gazing fearfully into the faces of the people around her - people she had known all her short life. Had one of these murdered poor, mad Allyn Thomas? She couldn’t imagine it.

“It wasn’t none of us," the brewer said, his face pale but firmly set. "Look at those bruises. Look at his neck. No blade did this. The man's throat was ripped open by bare hands.”

“No one came into the village since last evenfall,” said little Terrence Whelk, who had stood sentry on the village wall. “Not by the gate, anyhow. I swear it.”

“It would take a monstrous strong man to tear out a throat,” declared the brewer more forcefully. “And what cause do any of us have to kill the madman? I won’t say I haven’t thought of giving him a good rap between the eyes when he goes on about his monsters, but he was harmless enough.”

The thought seemed to come on them all at once.

"Do you really think..." It was the inkeeper's wife that spoke first, her fingers pressed tightly to her mouth.

"No," John Farn shook his head vigorously. "Absolutely not."

The rest just stared down at the body, eyes wide with fear.

"Why not?" Someone called from the back. "He was always going on about them monsters; maybe they found him after all."

Mara felt sick. She had disliked Allyn Thomas, with his tall tales and his haunted looks. Could it have been that he was really telling the truth? Were there really creatures that lived forever, that could not be slain - creatures that could scale a thirty-foot wall of timber and tear our a man's throat with their bare hands?

In the end, John Farn had agreed to set a heavier guard on the walls and to send scouting parties out into the surrounding forest. Nearly all the men of the village volunteered, and a fair few women even scaled the walls to keep the watch. Mara had hoped to be one of these, knowing that she would never sleep for knowing that the dark creatures Allyn Thomas had told her so much about might be climbing the walls around her, dropping down into the village on clawed, silent feet. Unfortunately, there were to be other plans made for her.

When Mara's father had been around, he had been the best hunter in the village. Often he had brought Mara along on the mornings when he ranged out into the wood, and had taught her to read the forest with a hunter's eyes. She could climb a tree as well as any squirrel, and knew all of the little animal sounds that indicated game. She could move silently through the carpet of dead leaves and twigs that forever covered the ground beneath the trees. Her feet were so soft that she had even been able to steal up on her own father, quiet as a forest cat, and throw her arms around his waist before he saw her.

After her father's disappearance, Mara had used her skills to help keep her family in table. Her mother took on work as a washerwoman, but Mara's knowledge of the plants and animals in the forest was valuable enough to earn them good coin if the right person needed it. When the dyer needed certain flowers or berries, often Mara was the only person who could find them. The herbalist also availed himself of her help, for he was an elderly man who could not range far from the wall in search of his medicinal plants. Even the furrier had come to her once or twice, whenever he desired the pelt of a rare or elusive animal. Though Mara did not hunt herself, she knew the forest so well that she was aware of where animals of all sorts denned themselves, and would part with the knowledge if the pay were enough.

She had never suspected that she might one day be called upon to search out monsters in the wood, though, and for the first time, the place frightened her. The trees were so tall and sturdy that each seemed to conceal one of Allyn Thomas's nightmarish beasts in its skeleton fingers, and the shadows seemed deeper and longer than they ever had before. The forest was altogether transformed, from a sun-dappled wonderland that teemed with life to a forbidding haunted wood of the like that surrounded the castles of damned kings in fairy tales.

And now she was alone, her skin crawling with eyes, little more than a fatherless girl shivering in a cloak that was too big for her. She wished her father was here, more than anything, but she was past believing that he would return for her. He had gone out on one of his long-ranging trips, seeking game that only inhabited the darkest reaches of the wood, and never returned. She remembered him laughing at the last, waving and winking in the early morning sunlight as he made out along the road on his borrowed horse. He had always come back, always, and she had never suspected that this would be the last time he smiled at her. The wound of his disappearance festered in her heart, and she never spoke of him, though her thoughts were never far away from that smile.

The rain was coming heavier now, and the feeling of being watched grew with every step. Mara could bear it no longer. Let them shout at her, she couldn't stay a moment longer. The decision spurred her to action, and she whirled around to run back to the little village, her father's cloak shedding icy beads of water in a widening arc. Her foot was raised to take the first running step home when she saw the man.

He was dressed all in grey, and seemed to shimmer in the rain. His hair was so blond it was almost colorless, but his eyes were dark and glinting. They were fixed on her. She staggered back, disoriented, and nearly fell into the wet mulch of leaves at her feet. The grey man did not move at all.

The signal, her mind shrieked at her, the bird call. But she didn't make a sound. She only stared, her heart bouncing against her ribs and her fingers trembling.

"You should not be so far from home, little one," the grey man said, and his voice cut through the air like a whip, though it was barely more than a whisper. "The forest is not a place for little maids to go wandering." He looked at her as though expecting some rejoinder, but she could not speak. "But I think you are more than wandering, are you not? You are seeking something - someone."

Surely this man was not - could not be one of the creatures... the thought made Mara weak with terror. She had expected some fabulous demon with razor claws and batwings, not this soft-voiced man in grey. And yet he frightened her all the more for his humanness, that and his eyes like black water.

"Yes," she whispered, amazed at the sound of her voice.

The man in grey moved toward her then, his feet as soundless as hers. Mara backed away, but still she did not run, though she longed to. She was locked to the black of his gaze.

"Creatures of eternal darkness," the man continued. "Men who do not die."

"Yes."

The man stepped closer, closer, and this time she did not back away. There was no fleeing from this man. There was no escape from his dark eyes. She was almost relieved to understand that, to know that there was nothing she could do. The grey man reached out and touched her cheek with his fingertips, brushing away a lock of hair that curled gently in the rain. She was surprised to feel the warmth in his touch.

"Go home, child. We have no quarrel with you or with the men of your village."

"But Allyn..."

"His debts are not yours to pay, little one. The Thomases will be long in answering for their crimes against us, and he is but one of them. He is gone from this place, and so soon shall we be. You have nothing to fear."

Mara was confused; her head was spinning with questions that she was too afraid to ask, and her knees were still weak with horror. "Nothing... to fear."

"Not so long as there are no Thomases in your midst." The grey man smiled, and it was a dangerous thing to behold. "I will leave you now, little one. Hurry home. The beasts of the wood do not like the scent of me, but when I am gone they will return." And in a twinkling he was gone, fading into the rain like a wraith. Mara took heel like a frighted deer, running all the way back to Pondbridge with her heart in her throat.

----------

It was two quiet weeks later when the man on horseback appeared, tall and proud as an oak. He spoke with a lord's voice and wore leather and velvet, his cloak fastened with a bloody ruby the size of a chicken's egg. He stroked this as he shouted out his greeting to the men on the gate, plucking at the facets with nervous fingers.

"I am Verne Thomas, and I come with tidings of blood and death. Open your gates! We must prepare for the coming of darkness - it is hard on my heels and slavering for blood. Where is my brother? I hear he is among you. Open your gates!"










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This week is yet another intersection, this time a threesome! My partners are [livejournal.com profile] amenquohi and [livejournal.com profile] vaguelyclear, and we combined our efforts to write a vampire saga! My story covers the past, [livejournal.com profile] amenquohi's the present, and [livejournal.com profile] vaguelyclear's the future. Please read and enjoy (and if you enjoy, vote for us)!

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How About Them Apples?

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