This thread exists to commemorate the winners of MASC. While all the entrants try their best, only the winners have earned a place in this thread and the glory and bragging rights that accompany it. That or it's just a nice little nod to them for a job well done. Your mileage may vary.
I wish I could send a letter with positive news like the last one but unfortunately I have bad news. Today they arrested my employer chirurgeon Joseph Kirchhoffs. They accused him of being the captain of the Buckriders. How I wish I could leave right now but that would only seem like I am fleeing to avoid persecution.
Gerrit Meertens was tending to the horses of the bailiff. When he wasn't helping his father and older brother on the farm he made some extra money this way. He took the horses for a walk and he stopped at the town square watching the activity there. He overheard a small group talking about some recent events. "The Boerens farm has been targeted by the Buckriders the other day, they stole everything but a broom and half a loaf of bread." One of them said. "The daughter swore she saw them take off on their goats, flying through the skies." Another replied. Gerrit shook his head as he walked on. He didn't believe that the Buckriders could fly on goats.
August 20th, 1771
My dear sister Janna,
it's been almost a week. Some of the household have been arrested too. I was allowed to visit dr Kirchhoffs. Maybe they hoped he would confine to a familiar face I don't know but I'm sure they'll start questioning him more seriously. You know what I mean by that. I am trying to leave here as soon as possible. Try to tell our parents in a way they won't be to alarmed.
When Gerrit came home for dinner he sat down at the table with his parents, his brother and two sisters. His younger sister Helena looked at Gerrit. She looked most like him with the pale blond hair and the light blue eyes they both had from their mother. "Have you heard about the incendiary letter the Pietersens received from the Buckriders?" Helena asked. Gerrit shook his head. "I've only heard about the Boerens being robbed by them. Are the Pietersens going to pay?" "Who knows…" sighed Janna, shaking her head so her dark blond hair swayed from left to right and her brown eyes looked worried. "Old man Pietersens is a penny pincher." Gerrits mother furrowed her brows. "Please, let's talk about something more pleasant." His father nodded in agreement to his wive. "Yes, no words about the Buckriders anymore. Those devil worshippers shall not be mentioned during dinner." The daughters nodded and silently ate on. Gerrit suppressed a sigh. He didn't believe they were devil worshippers either or that they made a pact with the devil.
August 22nd, 1771
They are coming for me, someone must have mentioned my name in the torture. I am trying to flee. I don't want to tortured for something I am not part off. Gerrit
After dinner Gerrit got up from the table, watching his father retreating to sit in his chair making most of the last light for reading his book. "I'm going outside for a bit." Gerrit said. His mother looked up worriedly. "It'll get dark soon, we'll lock everything up when it's dark. You know why. And what if you see them flying over on their bucks? They'll kill you or take you with them. Dear boy, I'd rather have you stay inside after dinner." Gerrit shook his head with a sigh. "Mother, I'll be fine. Besides I am fifteen. I can take care of myself. I promise I won't go far and if I see anything out of the ordinary I'll hide or come straight back." His mother nodded. "I pray you are right."
Gerrit took his brown coat from the rack to keep him warm, as the evenings still got chilly, and he exited their farm house. He walked to the big linden tree and climbed in the tree and sat on his favourite branch. He watched the sky turn colours before darkening while thinking about all the robberies in the area and other areas. He figured they'd be relatively safe as they weren't very rich farmers but also not very poor. They got by well enough. When the sun was almost gone he jumped down and walked back to ease his mother's nerves. Once inside a big bolt made sure the door was well shut and they all retreated for the night.
September 15th 1771
I have been arrested on the day I hastily wrote the last letter. I am coping. I wish I could say I am doing fine but being in a jail is not how I wanted to spend my time. I can reassure you that they haven't done anything to me yet. I am allowed to write a couple of letters from inside, although I am not sure why I got that privilege. I am sorry you all had to worry for nearly a month about my well being. I hope they will allow me to write again soon.
The next day, after he did his morning chores on the farm, Gerrit went back to town. His simple brown trousers and grey shirt were still clean enough to walk through town. A carriage stood in front of the pharmacy. Gerrit stopped as he examine it. It wasn't from the region. He wondered who it could be. It sure was a fancy carriage. He shrugged it off and continued to the stables of the bailiff to work there. Probably someone who needed someone travelling through who needed something from the pharmacist.
After a couple of hours he heard voices, one was of the bailiff and the other he didn't recognise but sounded like it belonged to a literate man. When they entered the stables he stopped and looked with curiosity at the stranger. The bailiff stopped in front of Gerrit. "Gerrit, can you take a quick look at the horse of Dr Kirchhoffs? Something seems wrong and you know a lot about horses." Gerrit nodded. "Of course." He replied. Gerrit walked to the horses that were in front of the carriage. He let them walk back and forth and felt the legs before turning to Dr Kirchhoffs. "I think it is the horseshoe or something in the hoof of the brown one. The blacksmith can help with that, he does horseshoes too." After that Gerrit went back to his work. He couldn't help but noticing Dr Kirchhoffs and the bailiff often looked in his direction while talking. At some point he noticed the carriage taking off again. When he was done he let the housekeeper know he was off again and went back home.
November 1st, 1771
it's been a while since I gotten some paper and something to write with. The guard wouldn't give me anything anymore but one of the maids gave me some when she visited. There have been executions but fortunately I'm still safe. They asked me a lot of questions about the Dr Kirchhoffs his daily life and his and my routines. Turns out no one said my name as possible buckrider but they want to build a case around the chirurgeon. They really want to convict him as captain of the Buckriders. I should be fine if I cooperate but I will not lie to save my hide to bring my master to the gallows. You brought me up too well for that and he has always treated me well and paid more then a fair wage.
Gerrit walked home and was surprised to see the same carriage further down the road. He turned to the path towards the farmhouse. Once inside he noticed his family had gathered, which was odd at this time of day as there was still some things to do before dinnertime. "Hello father, mother. Something wrong?" His father smiled. "Nothing wrong, we just had a visit from chirurgeon Joseph Kirchhoffs from a town nearby. It seems he had been looking for help in his stable and when he was in our town, to get some supplies from the pharmacist or something, the bailiff mentioned you. Dr Kirchhoffs liked what he saw and heard about you as it seems. He left this letter here, if you are interested you are to be at his house by the summer. Directions and what the job would be specifically are written down. Send a letter ahead so they know when to expect you. If you want, go with our blessing." Gerrit's father handed him the letter and Gerrit took it to read it. This was a great opportunity. His older brother would inherit the farm anyway and he loved working with horses.
December 15th, 1771
I can't believe it is half december already. The days all melt together and I had no idea how much time had passed. I have fallen ill. This cold and damp cell is even worse so close to winter. I try to keep warm by moving around but we don't get fed that well, if at all daily, so I lack energy to do so. The water is sometimes frozen. The maid snuck me in some soup and will sneak this message out. I heard father pleading to release me. I thank him for that. I wish I could bring merrier news but I suppose that me hanging on and still being alive is something to be grateful about. I know you must be praying for me as nothing worse has happened. Thank you and keep me in our prayers. I hope this message reaches you before Christmas. Merry Christmas to all of you.
Gerrit stood before the doors of the house belonging to Joseph Kirchhoffs. He was anxious to start, the pay would be good and the people he had travelled with had praised the chirurgeon. When the housekeeper opened the door he explained who he was and why he was there. She showed him in with a friendly smile. "Hope you had a safe travel. Dr Kirchhoffs is out at the moment" She said but before he could respond she was explaining the house rules and the routine for the staff and telling him what they expected of him. He was quickly introduced to the maids, cook and his assistant, the other stableboy, the chirurgeons apprentice and the rest of the family. After a quick tour around the house he was shown his room above the stables. Gerrit sat down on his bed, taking it all in. He put away his belongings and freshened up before going down for dinner.
December 20th 1771
I fear that my fate could be the same off all they accused to be Buckriders no matter what I say. The ones that get cleared of all charges can be counted on one hand. I fear they treat possible Buckriders the same as witches. No fair treatment at all, almost always resulting in death. The maid begged me to escape before but now I am thinking I should. I'm sorry to place the burden of this knowledge on your shoulders but I needed to air my thoughts. I want to escape.
Gerrit enjoyed working for the Kirchhoffs. The family was very nice and treated their staff more like equals. They paid very well and even made sure everyone could read and write. They could even study other subjects if they liked. The master often keft the house and needed a horse to be ready at all hours of the day and even at night. He also received many guests but that was to be expected of a great chirurgeon. He admired the knowledge and the way the patients got treated by Dr Kirchhoffs. Sometimes guests appeared in the midst of night and they discussed things he couldn't hear but he supposed they were patients but heit wasn't sure about it.
On Sunday after the mass Gerrit walked to the fountain with one of the maids. An older lady looked at him. "Have you heard? The Buckriders have robbed a church three towns away. After that they flew off on their bucks and robbed a big farm house at least 40 kilometers away from here in the other direction." Gerrit couldn't hold back a sceptical glance. "They have a pact with the devil I tell you!" The woman continued. Gerrit shook his head. "They are just thugs and thieves, probably even different groups, nothing mystical about them." The lady glared at Gerrit. "I've seen it! I've heard the spell they use so they can fly on their goats. 'Over house, over yard, over pole, and that to Cologne in the wine cellar!' With their flying bucks they can get anywhere fast, they have a pact with the devil I tell you!" Gerrit decided it was better to agree with her then to argue against it. He wished her a good day and went on.
That evening his employer went out again in the darkest hours and an hour later a messenger came to the door. "Gerrit, they ask you to bring the two horses to the chapel near the crossroad by the old oak." Gerrit yawned and nodded. After preparing them he mounted one horse and brought the other along. Once he got there he noticed quite some men, all dressed in dark colours. He went to find Dr Kirchhoffs and found him talking to a few of them. "Here are the horses sir" he said. Gerrit didn't like the other men as they were glaring at him and looking suspiciously at him. Gerrit narrowed his eyes when noticed the glaring and some eyeing him suspiciously. What were they up to?
January 7th, 1772
I owe you everything. I will never disgrace our family's name. Thank you for your everlasting support. I hope they'll release me. Tell mother I'm all well again. The maid snuck in some medicines. I will not write down her name asit it might endanger her if it would fall in the wrong hands.She is great and all the time I worked there I enjoyed spending time with her. If she would give this message treat her as your daughter because when I can I will ask her to marry me.
Later that month Gerrit was asked to stand ready with two horses at the same spot as before. He waited while walking around to keep warm. The nights were getting colder, winter would be there soon.
He noticed an orange glow in the distance and immediately thought about fire. He jumped on one of the horses and went in that direction. He didn't get far before he came across one of the men of the gathered group. "There is a fire overthere!" Gerrit shouted. The man nodded and a grin spread on his face. "I know." He said. "Nothing can be done now, just keep to your task. We are going to regroup there soon to see if we can sort of assist them any further. They were a bit reluctant to be assisted by us before" the man grinned again. Gerrit gritted his teeth. He had his sususpicions about them, or at least a few of them. They were thieves, or maybe even Buckriders. Gerrit wanted to check on the fire but the man wouldn't let him pass. "There are guards in the area" Gerrit lied, hoping to deceive the man so he could get through. The other man narrowed his eyes but didn't want to take the chance and took off.
Gerrit quickly drove towards the flames. Before he got there he noticed a girl clamping a medallion in her hands. She looked up with fear in her eyes but when Gerrit didn't speak or act she quickly went on her way to the north. One of the men of the gathering came near. "What are you doing here?" But he dismissed his earlier a question with a gesture of his hand. "Never mind, you seen a girl, with a medallion? I need to find her." Gerrit didn't want the girl to be found by this man, he had seen him in town before and he always had the worst way with woman. "Sure," he said, "she went south." The man narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure?" He asked. Gerrit nodded as innocently as he could. He didn't like deceiving like this but he didn't trust these men, not for a hundred gulden. "Fine, doc said you are trustworthy." The man grumbled. A pang of guilt ran through Gerrit but he reminded himself that the girl should not be alone with this man. He made it to the remains of the farm and noticed some men of the gathering remove stuff from the destroyed farm house. He hoped that they were helping and not stealing but he wasn't that sure anymore. He didn't see his employer and there was indeed nothing he could do to help so he made his way back to the other horse. Gerrit waited on the spot he was supposed to wait and helped the wounded back to the Kirchhoffs place.
January 20th 1772
Dear sister, if the maid gives you this note, please prepare what she asks. Gerrit.
Gerrit was waiting with horses again but everytime he had to wait it was on a different spot. He was pretty sure most of the men where thieves. He had even overheard some conversations that proved they were buckriders. But he wasn't sure if the whole group was deceiving Kirchhoffs or that Kirchhoffs and the men were deceiving him by not admitting who they were. He had asked several times in different ways if the household or some of the household were associated with these so called buckriders. If Dr Kirchhoffs was indeed the captain but he never admitted to it. He definitely didn't want to go to the authorities with his suspicion as they were as bad as Buckriders in different ways. The way they treated Buckriders in jail was something you didn't wish upon your worst enemy, let alone a good employer that he never actually see commit a crime. It had been two years and he being treated really good in the household. He had enough free time, received a good pay and was trusted to order anything he needed for the horses. He even helped the maids look after the childeren when needed. He particularly liked the maid Anna, the beautiful fair haired Anna with eyes so blue as sapphires. Since he didn't have concrete proof his employer was involved in any of it he stayed loyal. He didn't want to destroy the life of a possibly innocent man and distrupt the family. The less he knew the better in his opinion. Sometimes he thought whether it would be better to go back to the farm but he liked the Kirchhoffs and he didn't want to leave Anna behind. The Kirchhoffs treated him almost like family and the work was good.
February 13th, 1772
At this point the only thing that lets me endure the questioning is the maid and your letters. I have not confessed to anything and I haven't confessed against Kirchhoffs. So far they believe what I told them and there is nothing else to tell. Others are not as fortunate. The other stable boy had severe torture and is send to the gallows. Even though escaping would make me look guilty I am not sure I'm getting out of here alive. But please do not come back to here. I hope I will be able to visit you all soon.
Gerrit walked with Anna to the market. They were chatting and joking. While Anna did the groceries Gerrit carried the basket. He had just spend the winter with his parents and his older brother. Both his sisters were wedded and he had only seen them with Christmas. Gerrit and Anna were on their way back when prisoners were brought in by a jail cart. "Poor souls." Anna sighed. "Probably buckriders. There are so many of them and they find them all over. Makes you wonder if they really do have flying bucks." She knew Gerrit didn't believe it but Anna couldn't help wondering if some of it could be true. Gerrit shook his head slightly and watched the new prisoners. When he recognised a few of the men from the nightly gatherings he worried instantly. "Come,let's head back." Anna was surprised that Gerrit wanted to go back so soon but she followed without complaining. Once they were back at the house Gerrit immediately told Dr Kirchhoffs what he had seen. A flash of worry shot through the man's eyes but it was gone so soon Gerrit wondered if he had seen it right.
March 26th 1772
Today they told me that whatever faith my employer would face I will face it too. I am pretty sure they are not going to release him. I've heard several men shout out his name. I'm pretty sure he hasn't confessed but so many others named him captain of the Buckriders that they can't ignore it.
But don't worry I have a plan.
August 14th, 1771
Gerrit woke up abruptly as he heard loud knocking and shouting. He scrambled to the window to see his employer and two others of the staff being led away in custody. He hurried downstairs and a sobbing Anna threw herself in his arms. "They arrested him for being a buckrider! How can they do that. He is a very good Christian. He isn't one of those devil worshipping, buck riding ghosts! He isn't a thief!" Gerrit patted her on the back before he grabbed her shoulders. "You have to take care of his wife and children. Be strong for them." Anna nodded with watery eyes and went to the master bedroom to see what she could do for mrs Kirchhoffs.
May 11th, 1772
They hung Joseph Kirchhoffs today. Up until the end he claimed his innocence but they wouldn't hear it.
August 22, 1771.
Gerrit threw some of his clothes in a bag. He wanted to leave as soon as possible. Some time had passed since the arrest of his employer and he felt it was better to go now and appear to be hiding something then to be arrested and be tortured for answers. He quickly scribbled a note. When he heard knocks on the door he looked through the window and saw guards standing there his shoulders dropped. He hoped it wasn't for him but when he heard Anna scream and cry he knew it was for him. It was too late.
May 11th, 1772
Anxiously Gerrit paced back and forth in his cell. He hoped Anna would succeed. They would need to trick quite some people for the escape to be successful. A little package got dropped through the barred window. Gerrit grabbed it and opened it. The little flask with the precious content was quickly emptied in his mouth. He soon fell how he drifted away in a deep sleep. "Is he dead?" "Looks like it" One of the guards kicked the unconscious Gerrit. Another felt for a pulse. "Nothing, throw him on the cart, we'll bury him now quickly so we have room for again for other criminals." Gerrit got hoisted on the cart and it took off with rattling wheels. A little flask got thrown on him and Gerrit stirred slightly as the effect of the herbs he took earlier were slowly wearing off. The flask that got dropped on him helped the process of waking up because of the smell that came from it. Just outside town the cart stopped as a gorgeous fair haired woman was eyeing the guards seductively. They grinned and jumped off. When they approached her she glanced a bit worried at the cart. The men laughed and told her it was just a dead man. Gerrit stirred again. Nervously she giggled before talking teasingly to the men. When one of them wanted to grab her she shrieked. That sound got through Gerrit's foggy brains and made him shake off the last of the effects of the herbs. He jumped off the cart to tackle the men. Astonished they were taken down but one of them reacted and kicked at Gerrit's legs. Gerrit fell down but scrambled to his feet quickly and punched one of the men in his face and he kicked the other in knee. With a curse on their lips they charged towards Gerrit but one fell down before he reached Gerrit. Gerrit looked surprised behind the man to see Anna standing there with a big branch in her hands. The other man tackled Gerrit and they wrestled until Gerrit could knock him out with a rock. Panting heavily he got up and embraced Anna. After enjoying their embrace for a couple of minutes Gerrit took Anna by the hand, grabbed the bags she had with her and they ran away.
July 3rd 1772
Dear father, dear mother. Anne and I are safely in our hideout. A priest married us. We will visit you before autumn. We are safe.
A light fog covered the marsh as dusk set in and a lonely bard followed the muddy path curling through the area filled with grass and water. He didn’t even bother looking at the sky, any dragon flying there would spot him anyway. There were no hiding places here. And what did it even matter if a dragon did get him? There was much left for him anyway.
Mikhal sighed, putting one foot in front of the other as he had done ever since he had left the ruins of Arnheim behind. All he had found since he left that place were burned down villages, destroyed cities. At some places a few people had survived, but all had the same defeated look. Most of their loved ones gone, their homes destroyed. How could they even begin rebuilding what the dragons had destroyed? Houses, ships, supplies, books containing the knowledge and history of the humans. All gone after the massive dragon attack.
So many died. Mikhal closed his eyes and rubbed away the tears that started to flow. His wife, his friends. They had all been in Arnheim when the dragons had come, but he hadn’t been with them. If others hadn’t told him he wouldn’t even had known what had happened. He cast his eyes to the sky, taking in a deep breath in an attempt to not let the grief overtake him.
During the attack he was in the Rainbow Tower, a place of sorcerers that existed between the realm of the living and the realm of the spirits. Just as he had wanted to leave that place the Lady of the Forgotten Songs had appeared, a cloud nymph and the patron of bards, who he had often left an offering for at shrines. She had told him it was too dangerous to go back now and had ordered the sorcerers to close the gate, who had complied. And when they had allowed him to return, he had found Arnheim destroyed. Stone walls smashed and burned. Not a single house had survived. He had helped the remaining citizens search for survivors, but most had perished, crushed under rocks or burned alive. Together with the survivors he had mourned them, sang the song of passing to let their spirits find peace with their sudden death and move on to the spirit realm.
After that he had left to see if the attack had been limited to the capitol city, but he soon learned that wasn’t the case. Since then he had walked and saw the destroyed farms and crops, the burned down villages, the destroyed cities. All he could do was walk and search for survivors. Turfoil was just the next place on his route.
Something moved in the fog, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he stopped. A wisp of fog floated over the wet grass and soon more wisps joined it, emerging from the barely noticeable hills scattered around the grass. Witte Wieven as some called them, but in this area they were simply known as fog spirits. They curled around each other as if they were dancing, but one wisp moved towards him. The wisp rose and took the form of a woman, white and translucent, with long hair dancing in the wind. The hem of the dress floated just above the grass, it’s edges unable to hold a solid form.
The others had also taken forms of women, their long hair and long dresses floating in the breeze as they danced on the grass around their homes.
“You look sad,” the spirit in front of Mikhal said, her voice sounded like a whisper carried by the wind.
Mikhal just stared at her, taking in her gracious movements, the always changing fog of which her body consisted, the beauty of the woman. It was mesmerizing.
“Come.” The fog spirit floated backwards, beckoning him with a slender arm. “Come, my sisters and I will take away your pain.” Without hesitating Mikhal dropped his bag and his lute and he left the path, stepping on the soggy grass. He took a step in the direction of the spirit, who floated back with every step he came forward. Step by step he went to her, keeping his eyes on the spirit, until he sank in one of the many waterpits the grass concealed.
The muddy water closed above him, but Mikhal didn’t have the strength fight it. Maybe he would be reunited with his love after all.
Suddenly a hand grabbed his and pulled him up. Mikhal coughed as he was pulled on the grass and looked at the one who had saved him from drowning. “Pete…”
“Mikhal. I thought that you knew them well enough to not let yourself be lured off the path by them.”
Mikhal just stared at him.
“Sarena told me you had entered the marsh and I came to greet you. Then I saw you leaving the path, I came as fast as I could.”
“Catheryn is dead,” he whispered.
Pete took his shoulder. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Lemitsa, Joris, Rachel. Steve.”
While there was sadness in the eyes of Pete as the names came, it turned to pain with the last name. “Steve… Was Arnheim attacked too?”
“Between Arnheim and here I have not seen any city or village spared from the dragon attack. How is Turfoil?”
“Destroyed… only a handful survived. We’re sheltering in the traveller’s cottage. We figured that if it really is protected by the guardian spirit Donyar then the dragons wouldn’t destroy it. They haven’t in the first round, they haven’t when they came back. It’s either too small for them to notice or it really is protected.” He went through his hair with his fingers. “The farm got burned to the ground. I’m glad I was with Sarena when they came, she hid me in her lake.”
“I’m glad you still have her,” Mikhal whispered with a broken voice.
“I’m really sorry about Catheryn,” Pete said as he helped Mikhal up and picked up his bag and lute for him. “Come, you can rest at the cottage.”
“Come to me,” the fog spirit said once more and Mikhal looked at her open arms, a silent promise he would be safe with her, that she would take care of him and take away the pain as she had promised.
“Not today,” he said to her, and he watched her go back to her sister. He turned to Pete and nodded to him to let him know he was ready.
Together they followed the path to a junction and while Pete knew that Mikhal knew where the cottage was, he still had to guide him by pulling on his arm. The bard didn’t seem to pay much attention to where he was going.
“Do you know where Trevor is?” Pete asked.
“I…” Mikhal began, the words pulling him from the memories that plagued him. He frowned as he tried to understand the question and then formulate the answer. “I haven’t gone there yet.” He looked at the bag Pete carried, it looked much like his own. Then he realized it was his and Pete carried his lute too. When had he dropped them? Probably when the fog spirit had invited him to come, but he couldn’t remember doing so. “I have many places to check,” he continued. “My parent’s inn, Blomest. Although if Meria saw them coming I’m sure she could protect herself against the fire, she is a water sorceress after all. Still, I suspect the city will look much like Arnheim did.” He sighed and a bitter tone crept in his voice. “Catheryn’s family will most likely be dead too.” He could always hope for a miraculous survival, but he had seen too much of the same scene to believe in that. Still he wanted to go there, at the very least he could sing the song of passing for them.
“Do you think Trevor survived?” Pete asked, looking at the bard.
“He lives alone in the forest… it is possible the dragons missed his house.” If anyone had miraculously survived, Trevor had the highest chance. The man knew how to fight, knew how to survive. And his house was secluded.
Mikhal didn’t reply immediately, he thought back to Arnheim and the ruins of the palace where officers would have their meeting and the destroyed barracks where they stayed during the day.
“Do you think…”
“He wasn’t among the survivors in Arnheim, but we didn’t find his body. Either he wasn’t in the city when it happened, or his body was charred beyond recognition. We found a lot of those…” Mikhal swallowed heavily, that was a sight he’d rather forget. “But if he really is dead and Trevor is alive, then there is no-one who can stop him from getting revenge. Andrus was the only one who could order him.”
The light was disappearing steadily, but it still was light enough to see where they were going. It would be a while before it was completely dark, they would be at the cabin before that happened. “He wouldn’t listen to you?” Pete asked. “He seemed to respect your opinion.”
“Not as much as he respected the opinion of Andrus, I wouldn’t be able to persuade him to do something he doesn’t want to do. Or stop him from doing something he wants to do. Not if creatures he didn’t even like before this killed his best friend.”
While Pete didn’t believe that, he knew the bard was more persuasive than he gave himself credit for, he decided to leave it. He glanced at the sky where the brightest stars already shone. “Have you seen any dragons? We’ve been staying inside as much as we could, we weren’t sure if they would come back and didn’t want to risk it.”
“The couple I saw during my travel were far away and heading south, while shooting flames at the ground.” Mikhal didn’t even know what he had witnessed being destroyed, and he knew there were people alive who had lived through such an attack. “That was a few days ago,” he added, knowing Pete would want to know that as well.
“So maybe they went back to where they came from. They came over Turfoil twice, once going north and once going south, also a few days ago. We haven’t seen or heard any since then, but we’ve been hiding anyway, in case they would come back. Do you know why they came?”
Mikhal shrugged, he didn’t know. The Lady of the Forgotten Song hadn’t answered any of his questions about what was going on, just that she didn’t want him to die. And that there was nothing he could do to save his loved ones anyway; all he could do was die with them. She hadn’t said anything about the nature of the threat, but she had looked sad and apologized that she couldn’t stop it from happening.
“Any story that can shed light on it?” Pete tried.
Mikhal remained silent as he thought about it. “Remember when we were last here, when we were hiding for the dwarves during that invasion?” he finally asked as he looked at Pete and waited for his nod. “For us the last Dragon War was something our grandparents talked about. For them it was something they lived through. Lots of people died during that war, but the destruction on this scale is unprecedented.”
“But why did they come? It has been peace.”
“We had a truce, we agreed to stop killing each other, but we never got on good terms. And don’t forget, it had been peace with the dwarves too and yet they had invaded us. A truce only lasts as long as both parties still see a benefit to it.”
They went over a sturdy bridge, Mikhal blinked and stared at the wood. This wasn’t how he remembered it. The last time he was here the wood had creaked and bent with any weight put on it.
“I made a new one,” Pete explained when he saw what Mikhal was looking at. “The last one was falling apart and no-one in Turfoil seemed willing to repair it, so I did. Shortly after that Steve came to visit, we…” his voice trailed off and he closed his eyes.
“He was your best friend,” Mikhal said, putting a hand on Pete’s shoulder. After a moment Pete looked up again, returned the gesture, and together they walked to the edge of the lake, where the head of the water nymph appeared. “Sarena,” he greeted her.
“You look sad,” she said.
That is exactly what the fog spirit had said. “Are you going to lure me into the depths of your lake now?” Did water nymphs even do that? He thought back to the stories he knew about them. It was better than remembering Arnheim.
“Why would I do that?”
“He almost drowned when he let the fog spirits lured him from the path,” Pete told her. “I saw it happen.”
The water nymph had looked at Pete when he explained it, but turned her attention to Mikhal again. “I thought you knew better,” she said with a neutral voice, although she examined him with mild curiosity.
Of course he knew better, Mikhal knew the stories about the witte wieven and this wasn’t even the first time he had come face to face with them. In the past he hadn’t let them lure him from the path, but today he had been unable to resist. “They said they would take away my pain,” he whispered.
“Sometimes they help, sometimes they lure," Sarena spoke. "It is not in their power to mend a broken heart, but they can provide a pleasant death if that is what you seek.”
“Sarena!” Pete interjected. Sometimes he forgot she wasn't human, she seemed undisturbed by the idea Mikhal could have died and even spoke about a pleasant death as if it was a viable option.
“But it is the truth,” Sarena defender herself, looking at Pete. “Sometimes they do help lost travellers, and they will always help a woman in birth pains, but most of the time they will try to lure travellers to them, never to be seen again. It was their intention to lead him to his death. And he has that knowledge about them.” She turned her gaze back at Mikhal. “You know you have to stay on the path if you want to live.”
Mikhal nodded, he knew that, although he hadn’t thought about it when the fog spirit had appeared before him. While it hadn't been a conscious decision to follow her, he didn't have his usual defence to protect himself against them. Before he had Catheryn waiting for him and that had always been enough to not give in to temptations. That was gone, now his death was the only way they could be together again, so maybe subconsciously he had wanted to follow her. 'Stay on the path if you want to live' as Sarena had said. He wasn’t certain he wanted to live, but he knew Catheryn would want him to.
“Come,” Pete said, putting his hand on Mikhal’s shoulder. “We have soup ready inside. You can dry your clothes and eat. And the others will want to know what you have seen too.”
Again Mikhal nodded and he walked to the cottage with Pete. That still looked the same and he looked at a carving of a large circle, with a small circle in the upper right corner and something that looked like a man with a stick in it. The symbol of Donyar. Maybe it really had protected the people inside.
Going through the door, Mikhal looked around. There were only eight others: one man, three women and four children; their clothes dirty and torn, Life returned to their eyes as they stared at him, disbelief and hope showing in their eyes; his arrival had broken their lethargy. No-one had expected a traveller would reach their marsh and they asked him about relatives, but the news he brought destroyed the hope they had flickered. When Mikhal saw the shoulders hanging in defeat, the eyes filled with grief and fear, he took his lute and played for them. It seemed to lift their spirit a bit.
Maybe there was a use for him in this destroyed country after all. He would survive, which was all anyone could do at this point, and look for more survivors. Maybe at one point they would be able to rebuild their country, but for now humans just had to try to survive.
The temperature was just right, the sun gave off a pleasant warmth and a gentle breeze gave just enough cooling. The lawn of the picnic area looked like a soft green blanket, adorned with white daisies and yellow buttercups, and a few butterflies and bumblebees flew from flower to flower. It seemed like a perfect day for a picnic.
Why wasn’t anyone here?
One of the slings on the playground creaked as it gently swung back and forth, as if someone had just jumped off. Mike stood on the sidewalk and looked at the deserted playground. Aside from the creaking there wasn’t any sound. No cars driving, no birds singing. Nothing.
He turned his back to the empty place and examined the row of houses. After looking left-right-left, although he wondered why he even bothered, he crossed the street. He peered through one of the windows and saw a table with two cups of coffee and two small plates with a slice of cake on them. It looked like a couple had drunk from the coffee and eaten from the cake, but he couldn’t see them. He went to the door and rang the doorbell, the shrill sound of it pierced the silence and he cringed.
Even though the bell was loud enough, no-one came to answer the door. After waiting for a half a minute he rang again. And again. He turned around and went back to the sidewalk, rubbing his arms although he wasn’t cold. For a moment he stood there, looking at the area around him. How could no-one be here? He decided to go to the next house; the gravel under his feet crunched with every step he took and when he rang the doorbell a gently melody sounded on the other side.
Mike raked his fingers through his hair as he looked around. He couldn’t be the only one here. “Hello,” he called, “is anyone there?” His words sounded unnaturally loud in the silence around him, but after the sound disappeared the silence returned, seemingly more present than before he broke it.
He went to the next door, and the next. Soon he ran over the sidewalk, trying to find someone, anyone. When he stopped he found himself in a shopping street, but no-one walked the cobblestone road. He went to the nearest store and peered inside through the open door. The lights were on and shop was filled with clothes of the latest fashion, but that was it. He pulled up his shoulders and wrapped his arms around him as he continued walking through the street. This place should be filled with people shopping, but it wasn’t. Only the mannequins stood in the windows, silently observing him.
“Hello!” Mike called out again. The silence was deafening.
His stomach felt as if it turned to stone and his nails dug in the flesh of his arms. He couldn’t be the only one here. He continued to walk, slowly making his way to the other end of the street, his shoulders hunched, but his eyes frantically moving from door to door, from window to window. At first he hummed to break the silence, but that didn’t help and soon he just walked in the overwhelming silence.
He cast his eyes to the ground and shook his head. His heart was beating faster and he felt both warm and cold. “Come on,” he muttered to himself as he looked around him a final time, “I can’t be the only one here…” When he reached a bench he sat down, trying to keep his breathing calm. Slowly he lay down and covered his face with his hands. Maybe whoever took them would take him soon as well. He wouldn’t be alone for much longer…
When he opened his eyes it was dark, and he was unpleasantly warm. He pushed the blanket away and looked around in the room until he noticed a digital alarm clock. He blinked a few times. “A dream…” he muttered, letting out a sigh of relief. “It was just a dream.”
Somewhere in the distance he heard a car, a rare sound at this hour of the night, but a welcome one. He turned to one side, listening to the silence in his room. He turned to his other side. He turned on his back and looked to the ceiling, but soon he turned to his side again.
Maybe it had been just a dream, but the loneliness he had experienced lingered. And while he knew he wasn’t alone anymore, the car he had heard was proof of that, he couldn’t shake the restlessness that had built up during the nightmare.
He was still alone in his room.
He closed his eyes, telling him to go to sleep, that his parents were sleeping in their bedroom, so he wasn’t alone. But he knew he was and he couldn’t convince himself otherwise. And he didn’t want to be alone. The silence wrapped around him like a blanket and he hugged himself. How he hated being alone.
After a few more minutes of tossing and turning, he got up, grabbed his blanket and opened the door of his room. The house was dark, his parents were sleeping. He went to their room and opened the door. All he could hear was their calm breathing and he lingered in the doorway. After looking back to his room he went in as silent as he could, sat in the comfortable chair in the corner and wrapped himself in the blanket. It had to be a decade ago since he had last done this and he felt silly for doing it now that he was twenty, but knowing there were other people in the room made him relax. He soon fell asleep.