Spring 758, Barovian Calendar
She had travelled for two nights and two days, leaving the city under cover of midnight so as to avoid the host of admirers who constantly doted at her; only the slimmest of an entourage came with her on this trip up the mountains. Even then, this was not among the best of times to be travelling through the Balinoks. The past winter season had been one of the fiercest since the Great Upheaval, with storms blanketing the fertile farms and orchards with sleet, and fierce blizzards effectively grinding trade and travel to a frozen halt. Thankfully spring had arrived on time, but along with it came the threat of floods, avalanches and deadly mudslides. On the precarious paths that trailed along the Balinok Mountains, these threats were magnified tenfold.
Such drastic changes to the climate would matter little, she told herself. Against the wishes of those around her, who flimsily argued that her delicate skin would dry in the chilly mountain air, she proceeded anyway.
In her carriage she shivered, despite the splendidly woven white wolf coat she wore around herself to stave off the mountain cold. The bumpy ride was not to her liking, either; this far up the highlands, away from the main trade routes, hardly anyone would want to pave these trappers’ trails. Even the simple act of writing in her journals was nigh impossible to attempt, lest her impeccable handwriting write out illegible ink lines that mirrored the jagged landscape she was now travelling through.
The best she could do to ease her discomfort was read, and brush up on her history—or rather, the histories of others. Sometimes, when one gets bored with listening about one’s self, other people’s lives become more interesting after all. And where she came from, it was never a dull moment when other people were gossiped about.
“My lady,” came a gruff male voice from outside, “we approach the meeting place in a few minutes.”
With her gloved hand she delicately pulled back the curtain of the carriage’s right window to reveal one of her entourage riding on horseback, pointing to somewhere beyond along this miserable road. She would rather not look out the window to see what lay ahead; the high wind of the Balinoks indeed seemed too dry for the skin of her well-maintained face. Even now she could feel the dry air creating faint cracks on the corners of her lips, and beyond the view of the rest she discreetly licked them as to maintain their moisture.
The carriage eventually came to a slow halt. She waited a few moments more, fidgeting with her gloves before another one of her entourage gave the signal for her to descend from the vehicle.
She was greeted by a view that was both majestic and frightening. A blanket of fog drained all color and shadow from the landscape, but she could easily make out the towering gray peaks of the Balinoks above, lording over her like the granite gargoyles of a massive cathedral. There was a steep cliff to her right, one that tumbled down thousands of feet into the white and cloudy emptiness below; she was thankful that the ridge was a dozen or so yards away. Only the muffled sounds of the horses and her entourage milling about interrupted the eerie silence that surrounded them.
Beyond her was a small meadow where stood a tall grove of cedar trees; unusual at this high altitude, she thought, but not surprising, considering who she was supposed to meet. Their shadows would provide ample shade.
The others in her troupe had already started a small fire, and over it now hung a small cauldron of boiling tea. She took a small sip from a cup of that same tea that was offered to her a little later, and she wondered when that other person would arrive.
A gust of wind blew from somewhere high above, blowing the fur hat from her head. The blast was so sharp and sudden that it startled everyone; even the horses became uneasy, as if at any moment something else happened they had to flee where they stood. While the rest tried to calm the steeds, one other calmly picked the fur hat from the ground and returned it back.
They did not look at each other as she received the hat and fastened it back on her head. Both their gazes were fixed on the cedar grove, beneath which now stood a small group of people whose features remained hidden in the shadowy fog.
“He is here,” her companion whispered to the best of his abilities, “along with—“
“I know,” she calmly interrupted. “There are matters between me and him that are of mutual interest alone, but I have asked that there be witnesses for this, one from each of us.” She looked into her companion’s eyes with genuine concern, and though most of his deeply scarred face was veiled in cloth, her gloved hand still reached out to caress his cheek. “Now come. The more we tally here in this wasteland, the less benefits we reap.”
After giving a few more orders to the others, she and her companion walked towards the grove, she a few steps ahead of him. It was best for her to keep her anxieties hidden beneath her well-maintained composure; she had learned early on that noble statecraft was not just about the play of words but also of actions, or the lack thereof.
Barely a yard from the first tree of the grove, she finally stopped. She knew very well that she could not take one step further. The small group beneath the cedar copse was a motley one, of two men and five women who wore gaily colored clothes despite their dour faces, exuding an aura of both mysticism and whimsy.
But there was an eighth member, a man taller and more imposing than the rest. It was as if the shadows of the trees above them bent and twisted to his will, and it was not without a twinge of fear that she watched him slowly walk towards her like a battlefield general ready to behead a prisoner of war.
She steeled herself in the confidence that he too could not penetrate that nigh intangible line from whence he finally stopped.
Thus there they stood, silently assessing each other as is wont of their stations. Even their clothing was a study of contrasts: her fashionable white wolf fur coat seemed ostentatious and garish compared to the streamlined black caped coat he wore that seemed to absorb the shadows around them. Doubtless he was taller than her, but she was aware that he carried with him the brunt of ages, and inwardly she put in point that the legends that concerned him were all too true. In a sense it made the man the superior of the two; that thought alone made it slightly unpleasant for her to be standing at that spot.
The silence between them was almost unbearable, so she inhaled the cold mountain air and asked, “Shall we begin?”
Without breaking his gaze towards her, the man gave a slight nod and raised his right hand as a gesture for his own troupe, save one as his witness, to leave. A few of them looked distastefully at her veiled companion, and one of them spat out a strange word of two syllables, holding up a curious warding gesture aimed at him before they all melded back into the dark fog bank beyond the cedars.
She knew what the word meant, but that was of no concern at the moment. “I surmise we both want to keep this discussion swift, and not trifle with things of no import.”
“Do not worry, child,” he replied back, his voice suggesting age, yet asserting a cold authority that dares not be questioned, “I have all the time for the matters of this world.” On her part she felt irritated that she would be called a “child;” considering the circumstances, however, such a term might be apt, and she kept her annoyance in check.
“If that be the case, then you are more than aware of the inevitable tides of war that would soon wash over both our realms.”
The dim shadow that covered his pale face revealed eyes that squinted in suspicion. “That is of no consequence. I know of your Treaty and I have already expressed through my channels that I have no interest in such an alliance. I—and the Land—will endure, as it always has since the beginning.”
“I come here not asking for you to join the Treaty. Rather I see this as an opportunity to create a new one, exclusive only to the realms we both claim, on grounds that are cultural and contingent, but which could be expanded in the future to encompass other interests.” She looked down to the ground, at that invisible border between the toes of their feet that they both could not cross. “We each are our realm’s prisoners, and that is undeniable. But we are also its rulers. We certainly could not wile our nights away in ignorance of the affairs of those beneath us.”
A sharp breath escaped the man’s lips, and she silently wondered how he, of his nature, would even have breath. “These are paltry matters of state, child. Issues that our proxies could broker publicly through our courts and embassies...certainly there’s much more that would require the effort of climbing these mountains and meeting in secret?”
“I assure you, there is.”
“Is your cousin a party to this?”
“He is...unconcerned about what I do, let alone where I go. But again you can be assured that he knows nothing of this meeting.”
There was another slight nod from the man. “You are indeed your mother’s daughter.”
This seemingly quick remark put a fold in her delicate brows. “I do not see how my mother would matter in this,” she replied back, unconsciously raising her chin and clasping her gloved hands tighter by her stomach, a reactive posture befitting a noblewoman such as herself.
Seemingly pleased with her visible unease, he raised his head up in response, revealing more of his pale yet regal features. The unusual catlike points of his ears now seemed appropriate for the near-feral profile of his angular face. “It matters more than you could imagine. The names of both our families are intertwined by history, and are both hinged on issues of trust, or a lack of it to be more precise.”
She trembled underneath her thick coat, yet she remained unmoving as he bent his powerful form to level his ancient face with hers. He was as close to her as the border between them would allow. “If we are to have this treaty for our mutual benefit,” he continued, “would it not befit us to be both honest with each other? The blood that flows within you is treacherous. Your mother, as well her ancestors, have proven as much. She walked a delicate tightrope of politics, and used her deceit as needed to the fullest of how she desired things to fit. It was most unfortunate that her life was cut short by treachery.”
The way his hollow voice echoed in her mind made it seem that all this happened mere moments ago, so much so that her eyes watered despite her composure.
“Know this, child: I care little if your mother’s demise was by your own poisonous machinations. Its execution was nevertheless brilliant, and she probably deserved her fate, but the petty quarrels of your family are of little concern to me. What matters here is that I know of these things, and I have ears and eyes everywhere to alert of me of the treachery of your line.”
His gaze never left her own, and the tiniest hint of a smile lingered at the corner of his dry lips. The silence that lingered between them, like the impassable barrier which could never be crossed by each, could not be broken for moments afterwards.
It took a while before she regained her composure, understanding the crushing gravity of what he had told her. His eyes and ears were everywhere in her realm, as he so clearly declared—if so, then the veneer of trust they were now attempting to offer each other should be maneuvered with the skills of expert statesmen.
“Now that we have made clear that matter,” he began, breaking that silence that flooded her mind with so many flashes of memories and regrets, “what do you offer for this new treaty?”
After taking the cold Balinok air with another deep cleansing breath, her focus turned back to the here and now. “My realm can provide the resources and manpower to improve upon any militia that requires either.”
“My realm,” he replied flatly, “already exploits those same two things you offer, and more. I have a standing army that uses the lay of these mountains to its advantage, something that no other battalion elsewhere possesses.”
“That I understand,” she replied back, “but I have my eyes set not on your entire army, but on one particular legion that requires aide the most. The Ebon Gargoyles, if that is what they still call themselves these days.” Even across the invisible barrier between them, she could feel him cringe in disgust at the mere mention of that name.
He shook his head nevertheless. “They have a duty to fulfill here, small as they are.”
“You know as well as I do that such a...duty has now become moot, considering that what they watch over no longer exists in your domain. Our more northern neighbor has turned his attention to, shall we say, otherworldly pursuits.” A cursory glance towards her veiled witness emphasized this last fact. “This Order is now nothing more than a pathetic sideshow, a group of mercenaries failing an attempt at being armoured thugs who unfortunately leech off the resources of your people, and obliquely at your own.” She had noticed that his eyes had once more squinted into red slits, his mind carefully weighing her words.
He knew she spoke a considerable shard of the truth. The Ebon Gargoyles were indeed reviled by his subjects, but they were not feared. Behind the Order’s backs they were even ridiculed—a weakness he could not tolerate. The fact that their leader bore his family name was even more of a lingering humiliation that demanded a rethink of the group’s existence.
“If you can lend them to me,” she prodded further, breaking his train of thought to eliminate the Order altogether, “I guarantee that within a few seasons their efficiency as a fighting force will increase tenfold. They will become a tangible symbol of the alliance of our two realms, and perhaps more. True to the name they claim for themselves, it is my hope that our peoples would soon look up to them with respect, awe and fear.”
Behind his cowl he was secretly impressed. Her bloodline may be devious, but she was not as vapid as her looks suggested; indeed it carried a resoluteness which he often wondered he still had.
“You can have them,” he declared, “on the condition that the core of their operations remains in my dominion.”
She nodded with visible contentment. He turned his back, stepping regally towards the grove where even the dim light of the foggy day could not reach.
Satisfied that a deal had seemingly been forged, she turned her back as well, towards the carriage that waited for her. Two steps taken, and he heard his silken voice call back to her. “I wonder, however,” he continued, lifting a hand to stroke his chin, “how this exchange benefits me. Granted that the Ebon Gargoyles is just a measly box of broken toys for you to make over, I am left without a clue of what you can offer me personally in return.”
Slowly she turned to him, surprised that he did not do the same. His figure was almost invisible now, fused into the darkness beneath the cedars. He had implied a demand, but she was ready.
“Never underestimate an old man of stature such as myself, child. Like I said, surely a trek up these high slopes—“
“I will bring her to you.”
The short declaration took away the breath needed for him to speak; he wanted her to be honest with him, so be it. “Many of my peers think me a shallow fop, but I do a little bit of reading every now and then.” She made it clear that this was just an understatement. “On my way up here, I made it a point to brush up on my history about you.
“The object of your affections returns, one generation after another, defying death as you but in a different way. Through the years you search for her, and sometimes you do succeed. Sometimes.”
As a breeze blew beneath the cedar bowers, he could have sworn that they whispered the name of his lost love. “Do not cross me, child,” he growled.
“But every time,” she continued on, “every, single time—she escapes you. Now perhaps you wonder where she walks, hoping to break the curse that keeps you in your highland cage.”
“How dare you!” he roared. Without hesitation he quickly turned to her and pounced on her like a mountain lion, his fangs bare to feast on her delicate neck, his claws ready to rake her flesh to shreds.
The two other witnesses started to flee, but she herself remained unflinching, her eyes never leaving his. The shadows he lorded over crept around her and dissipated like smoke, but it was the invisible wall between them that kept her from becoming another one of his bloody meals. Aware of the lapse in etiquette he had created, he nimbly fell into a crouch. In his exasperation he inwardly thought that this treaty would likely bear fruit in the long run; after all, they both knew how to tug at each other’s sins very well.
He barely noticed her kneeling in front of him like a maiden pondering a wounded cat.
“You say you have ears in my domain,” she said, not without a hint of pride, “but listen now when I say that she is alive and of age. Who she is exactly, or what her exact whereabouts may be, I cannot be precise at the moment. If you indeed have as you say all the time for the matters of this world, then allow me that same time to watch for her.”
She stood back up, brushing off the dust and the dying flakes of snow that have settled on the folds of her cloak. “And when that moment comes, when she is faced with me as I with you, know that for as long as I still breathe I will keep my part of this bargain and have her delivered to you unharmed.”
It was as if the shadows themselves picked him up from the ground, and he stood regal as ever even if he denied himself the kingship of his realm. He needed no words to state his approval, and though dusk came late this high up the Balinoks he nevertheless knew there was nothing left to be said. He hungered, and the time had come to depart in search of prey.
“It is settled,” she said.
A short pause. “So it seems,” he replied back, “the fruit of this remains to be seen.”
A few dozen comfortable feet away, beside the carriage, the rest of her small entourage watched as the shadows of the dark man dissolved back into the imposing cedar grove, leaving the pristine figure of their lady standing amidst the fog, a companion serving as witness standing close behind.
Spring 760, Barovian Calendar
High above the gridded streets and squat stone buildings of the city, on an open walkway that abutted the manor, she bowed her head and wept, a bluish-tinged tear rolling down her cheek.
In a plush chamber that opened up behind her, servants came to carefully carry away the corpse of a naked man lying on a large bed, the veins on his face black as nightshade, his protruding tongue the hue of hemlock berries.
Under her translucent veil she sniffed and daintily took a kerchief to wipe her tears. The sunset over the city was stunning this evening, with a red sun sinking in front of a multicolored sky. Fitting, she thought, for a day when passions ebbed and quickly flowed. She glanced back at the dead man, then with a pout of her lips returned to gazing at the picturesque dusk.
“He deserved it,” she whispered to herself, “just like all the others.”
There came a firm knock from the door within the chamber, and turning back she saw her veiled servant, politely bowing and excusing himself as the others carried the corpse by him for disposal. She took a moment to wipe the last of her tears and throw the kerchief into the fireplace where there still burned a few embers, which hissed like snakes as the blue-stained cloth slowly turned to ash.
His dark eyes told her what she needed to know: the visitors she was expecting had arrived. “Direct them to my study, but give me a few more moments to prepare. I shall meet them there personally without an escort.” As she had always done, she caressed his concealed face with a gloved hand to show her affection; he blinked back in response and returned to his station outside the chamber doors.
Her three guests were no mere admirers; two of them were members of the Order of the Ebon Gargoyle. She was rather proud of what had become of the Order, after she allowed the Church to train them in militant and religious thought. Although they still numbered less than a hundred, the Ebon Gargoyles now had an almost mystical aura of true authority surrounding them as they safeguarded the pilgrim trails of the faithful. Along the high passes of the Balinoks, even in places where the Church faced adversity, devotees need only pay the Order’s requisite indulgences for safe passage; no other border taxes were to be collected for as long as an Ebon Gargoyle served as a guide. Their tunics, a presentable mix of white and green embroidered with the emblem of a black gargoyle, made them more imposing than they were.
But it was her third guest, also a member of the Church, who was of greater import. There was no need for her to change her clothes; she digressed that the mourning suit she wore was conservative enough when faced with people of the cloth.
Declaring her self-appraisal appropriate, she departed her perfumed chamber and walked alone toward the study. As the doors to the wide chamber opened she kept her excitement to herself, observing the two Ebon Gargoyles and the holy woman they had in tow. As with any missionary anchorite of the Church, the young lady dressed simply for the convenience of travel and changes in weather, but her braided auburn hair and emerald eyes betrayed an innocence that also harboured an old soul.
“Welcome to my home,” she declared, “and thank you for accepting my invitation.” The nod she gave the two Ebon Gargoyles, and the nod they gave back in return, was a fitting assurance that despite the oversight of the Church she was still ultimately in control of their Order, and they left the chamber to leave the two women alone to whatever affairs needed private discussion.
In her mind she pondered back to that secret meeting high in the mountains two winters ago, and though she had not spoken with her dark neighbor since then—she had heard he had fallen into a dreamless torpor, and his “eyes and ears” were doubtless on their way rushing to his legendary castle, to summon him back to the waking world now that this momentous encounter was taking place in her own home—she had to keep her part of the bargain.
The anchorite smiled, pleased with the warm reception that her host had given her. “I am most honored, my lady, although you would have to forgive me if I myself do not know what your invitation is for.”
“It’s a bit complicated,” she replied back, a smile lingering on her porcelain face, “for you see, I have a crisis of faith that only you could maybe help me with.” She turned to a small mahogany desk behind her and took two goblets filled with what looked like fruit juice. “Fancy a drink?”
Story by Dion Fernandez
A PDF of this story can be downloaded here.