Shortly after he arrived with Miranda, the news arrived from the islands. The queen’s body was burnt from head to toe. They thought her dead until she started screaming when the priests doused her with blessed water. Blind and crippled, the queen was rumored to have been locked away in her chambers while King Haron hosted lavish parties with his mistress. That last bit of gossip boiled Sir Caldon’s blood, but he swore an oath to Cassandra he would keep Miranda safe no matter what happened beyond the Goshken Forest, even when it meant he could never return.
For fifteen years he held his oath. In truth he’d come to love the village they’d settled into and its simple farmers. In exchange for a small plot of land, Sir Caldon would bring back medicine and tools from the Zukalan capital, Aldana. On his return from one such trip, he stopped by a cool mountain stream to rest his horse and gather some more firewood. The crisp afternoon air signaled the coming of autumn and soon after the harvest season, the nights would drop to near freezing. The sun was nearing the horizon by the time he was done and had loaded the last of the firewood into his saddlebags. His mare, Sandra, ignored the extra weight, nibbled on sweet grass and flicked her tail at the buzzing flies.
Patting the mare’s mane, he untied the reins and led the horse down the hardly used trail. Although it was overgrown with vegetation, the ground itself was smooth enough for Sandra to get a good footing. The trail zigzagged lazily down a small hill where it joined with the main road that led to the village. Sir Caldon wiped the sweat away from his brow and took a swig from the water skin hanging from his belt. The humid air made his hair stick to his forehead and neck while another layer of sweat hid amongst the black stubble covering his jaw and upper lip.
As he passed over the second hill, the forest opened into a large valley. Clusters of dried mud huts were spread out along a circle within the valley. Thin plumes of smoke rose from the shrine in the middle of the circle. Off to the right, Sir Caldon could see the men toiling over their land. The harvest season was upon them and the crops this year looked as big as ever. Perhaps next time he went to Aldana, he would bring Miranda. She would certainly enjoy all the ships and the spices from the Kaitu Islands. Disguised as a boy, no would recognize her.
A dull pain throbbed in his knee as he led the horse down the steepest part of the hill. What he wouldn’t give for a tall glass of ale from Karo’s. The pier side restaurant was always Cassandra’s favorite. She and King Haron dined there often, much to the delight of those damn fish wives who gossip more than they breathe. It was enough to drive anyone mad, but Cassandra would just smile. When he first arrived, he was convinced she would order him back home and he would be able to see her smile again.
He rolled his eyes at himself and patted Sandra’s mane. “After fifty harvests and three wars you’d think I’d have more sense than some giddy recruit fresh out of his mother’s arms. When will I ever learn, girl?”
Sir Caldon looked up to see Miranda and three of the older village children running towards him. Miranda’s hair was tied back into a braid that rested on her right shoulder. Wisps of hair fell across her face, which was also covered with dried mud and spots of blood.
Sir Caldon’s hand flew to the dagger secured at his belt, but he kept it sheathed. “What happened?”
The village children began talking fast, delving quickly into hysterics. Miranda touched the shoulder of the youngest, about fifteen, and pointed to his horse. The young girl nodded, taking the reins from Sir Caldon and leading Sandra to the makeshift stable Sir Caldon had built a few years ago.
Miranda turned back to Sir Caldon. “S-she just collapsed. She was giving p-praise to Zurla when her shadow started growling. She fell to the ground and wouldn’t stop shaking. She’s so cold.”
“Who is it child?” Her eyes were on him, but her mind was somewhere else. “Miranda. Is it the priestess?” She barely nodded. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Bring me to her.”
With a shudder, Miranda shook herself from her thoughts and nodded. “This way.”
The two village children led the way to the shrine to the Earth Goddess. They pushed back the flap at the entrance and Sir Caldon entered a room crowded with almost everyone from the village. Lying on a makeshift bed near the altar was the priestess who took care of the temple and acted as a healer for the village.
Sir Caldon approached, smelling the stench of death in the air. He looked down upon the old woman and a sudden jolt of fear struck him. The woman’s skin was so yellow and wrinkly that it reminded him of old temple scrolls. He knelt beside her and placed the back of his hand to her cheek where it felt as cold as a mountain stream. Her eyes fluttered open and looked towards Sir Caldon. That’s when he saw the gold light emanating like torch from within her eyes. He’d only seen this once or twice before, and it was dangerous up close. The crowd around then began to whisper while a two year old cried in his mother’s arms.
He rose and swept an around out. “I need everyone to get out,” he said. “Miranda, get me some water. The rest of you, get back to your work. I will take care of her.
You have my word.”
They left one by one until it was just Sir Caldon alone with the woman. She kept whispering something under her breath while her eyes widened and shifted rapidly from left to right.
“Hidden. Shadows. Hidden. Her. Coming, coming, coming…”
Sir Caldon placed a hand over where the woman’s heart should have been. Peeling back the crude bandages, he sighed at the blackened skin.
He heard the flap open. “What’s wrong with her?”
He looked over his shoulder and back to the dying woman. “A shadow dancer took her heartstone.”
The old woman rolled her head towards Sir Caldon. “Shadows. Hidden inside.”
“Shhh,” he reached for a rag and wiped away the sweat gathering along her forehead. “Rest now.”
Miranda placed the bowl of water on his left side and opened the box of herbs. “But the shadow dancers are just a story, aren’t they?”
“They are very real, I’m afraid. The magic here protected the forest and all of us from them.”
“What do we do?” Miranda’s voice was a whisper.
Sir Caldon shook his head then touched the side of the priestess’ face. “Fiona. Where were you attacked?”
The woman’s hands began shaking again. “Shadows. By the Goddess. They’re in the shadows.” Her gaze flew to Miranda. “Not safe. Magic is dying. They’re coming for you.” The light within her eyes grew brighter and brighter, until Miranda couldn’t look directly at them.
Miranda shifted uncomfortably next to him. “What does she mean? Coming for me? Who’s coming?”
Her voice grew louder and deeper in pitch. “Your father. Hidden for so long. Free him. Free him, child.”
The woman broke into a mix of intelligible murmuring and maniacal laughter. Sir Caldon grabbed Miranda and yanked her from the tent. A bright flash of light followed them along with a high pitched scream. Most of the villagers stared at Caldon and Miranda unsure of what to do. Two women, apprentices of the priestess, ran inside.
One came out, crying, and informed them that the priestess had passed on.
The villagers bowed their heads in prayer and the men were called back from the fields for the day of mourning. Sir Caldon was surrounded by questions. He raised a hand and called for silence.
“The priestess informed me that the magic protecting this area is weakening. We will need to move. Gather whatever possessions you can carry and in an hour we will find another home.”
“Why should we follow you?”
Sir Caldon bit back the retort in his throat. “Zurla showed Fiona a vision of terrible creatures that will be upon us within a few hours. We need to move now or many of us will not make it.” More ran after him with questions on the priestess’ death, but Sir Caldon managed to deflect them onto another priestess who would oversee the funeral pyre. Better to burn the body than risk it turning. Sir Caldon had heard stories of the dead being infected from the shadow dancers.
He grabbed Miranda by the arm and pulled her from the crowd. When they got to their hut near the edge of the village, Sir Caldon immediately started packing anything he could fit into a small travel bag. As he started rattling off instructions for Miranda, he noticed that far away gaze she had earlier.
“Miranda,” he snapped. “Are you listening to me?”
“She said my father was coming. You told me my parents died when I was a baby.”
“She was dying, Miranda. Her body was a shell without a soul.”
“She said the old magic was fading. She said that right before…” Miranda made a small choking sound and began to sob. He pulled her into his arms and allowed her to sob and beat at his chest with tightly balled fists.
“I know you were close to her, but we need to get out of here as soon as we can; find an older part of the forest where the protective magic of the goddesses is stronger. I promise I will keep you safe.”
Suddenly they heard screams coming from outside. Sir Caldon unsheathed his sword and handed Miranda the dagger at his belt. “If one attacks you, use this. It will hurt them. We’re leaving now.”
Miranda held the dagger in her hands and just stared at the black blade. Sir Caldon forced her hand into a grip around the handle. “Miranda, listen to me. I need you to be brave. They will not get us, I promise. Bu–”
“I found them!”
Sir Caldon looked up just as a young man dressed in the livery of House Frey rushed through the doorway. Most of his face was covered in a black mask. Sir Caldon swore before pushing Miranda behind him. “Who are you?”
“Hardly the time for introductions.” Another figure appeared beside the first. This one was taller and had dark violet eyes. He pulled up the sleeve of his tunic and rested three fingers against the inside of his forearm. Sir Caldon could barely make out the outline of the nighthawk tattoo on his wrist. “We good?”
Sir Caldon nodded. “Yes.”
The first figure nodded and handed a bracelet to each of them. Gold links connected what looked like sapphires. As she examined it, Miranda heard the screams outside turn to squeals of delight. It reminded her of when a wolf slaughtered its prey. She held back the urge to throw up.
That’s when she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She thought it was a trick of the moonlight until the shadow began to meld into an arm reaching from the darkness. She opened her mouth but the scream stayed locked in her throat.
Sir Caldon pushed Miranda out of the way just as the arm reached for her leg, grabbing Sir Caldon instead. Three more arms formed from the shadows, grabbing a hold of Sir Caldon’s arms and other leg. His sword clattered to the ground as the pain flared in his knee. Behind him the darkness began to grow into a large circle and two pairs of red eyes stared from inside the portal. The color drained from Sir Caldon’s face as the arms began to drag him towards the large circle of darkness.
“Take her, you fools. Go now!”
The second figure paused for a moment, reaching for his sword when the first figure shook his head. “He’s lost, Garreth. We have our orders.”
Miranda watched as the second figure narrowed his gaze on Sir Caldon. “Let’s go, then.” The second figure grabbed Miranda by the waist and lifted her over his shoulder.
“What? No. No! Uncle. No, I can’t leave him. Go back!” Just before they disappeared from the house, Miranda caught a glimpse of her uncle disappearing into the shadows.
The two men moved quickly to the edge of the forest. The second figure kept a tight grip as she punched and kicked anywhere she could. Tears streamed down her face, burning her cheeks. When they reached the edge of the forest, the figures stopped. When Miranda whirled around to run back, her jaw dropped. The village was covered in a sea of moving shadows. Occasionally a tentacle of shadow would rise and grab at a body lying on the ground. The screams had died, replaced with an eerie silence. The first figure pulled back his mask and started fiddling with something on his wrist.
The second figure adjusted Miranda on his shoulder. “Are we in range, Vanar?”
Vanar nodded. “Within acceptable risk, yes.”
“Good. Get us out of here.”
The bracelet on Miranda’s wrist glowed a soft blue, growing brighter and brighter until her vision was consumed. When the light faded, she was in a dark room with moonlight streaming in through a large window to her left. The floor spun wildly beneath her and her head pounded with a fierce headache. On the brink of more tears, she collapsed into the second figure’s arms and let the exhaustion take her.