Welcome back to the roller coaster. 😙
The tranquil, afternoon silence in the forest of Murkwood was roughly disturbed by the marching of armoured feet. Dozens of soldiers in shiny, gold-and-white armour – the colours of Nemeth – marched through the woodlands, trampling and cutting down the surrounding foliage as they went.
They didn’t have to cut their way through the woods. The men could have meandered through, following animal trails and leaving the forest untouched.
Their captain had explicitly ordered them not to. And so they cut.
Tarquin of Nemeth rode his horse in silence, quietly overlooking his troops as they marched. The Duke had been in an incredibly foul mood ever since the Knight’s Tournament. Everyone knew the reason why. His humiliation at being defeated by a commoner had been too much for the Duke of Nemeth to bear. In one fight, Tarquin had become the laughing stock among every noble in Nemeth.
He couldn’t stand it. Tarquin could still feel the mocking stares thrown his way at court. The vile whispers behind his back. The alliances that were instantly broken as everyone in Nemeth began to discard him without a second thought. Not even Lady Mercury would give him the time of day anymore.
But all that would soon change. He would show them wrong. That filthy commoner’s victory had been a fluke – in real combat, Tarquin commanded legions. Hundreds of men were at his fingertips. He was practically invincible.
I’ll show them. I’ll show all of them.
He knew exactly what to do. Tarquin of Nemeth, Duke and fifteenth in line for the throne, would reclaim his honour by destroying the Kingdom of Camelot- and cutting that commoner down where he stood.
He could already taste the sweetness of revenge.
Tarquin was pulled out of his musings by a voice to his right. His lieutenant suddenly stopped, extending his arm and commanding the rest of his troops with a sudden:
Tarquin raised a single eyebrow.
“What seems to be the problem, lieutenant?”
The man nodded at the scene ahead of them. The path forward was interrupted by what looked like a withered stone-and-grass circle. Although the ground surrounding the ring was covered in leaves and pine needles, not a single leaf lay on the inside.
“It’s a faerie ring,” his lieutenant said. “I’ll tell the men to circle around-“
But Tarquin cut him off before he could finish his sentence.
“You will do no such thing. Continue the march.”
“Did I stutter, lieutenant?” Tarquin replied, his mouth curling into a smirk. “Do as I say. We are marching through.”
“But… captain, it’s a faerie ring. We shouldn’t disturb it.”
Tarquin broke eye contact with his lieutenant, casting a quick glance at the circle in front of him.
“That is a bunch of rocks and weeds.”
“But the stories-”
“We are Nemeth’s finest,” Tarquin replied, cutting him off again. “I will not allow my army to be guided by blasphemous nonsense. Now continue the march.”
At his command, the soldiers continued. They marched straight through the circle, trampling the withered grass and dragging a trail of sand and dirt through the inside of the faerie ring. A number of men tried to go around it – but a threatening glare from Tarquin was enough to force them back into line.
“Tell the men to speed up their pace,” Tarquin commanded. “And dispatch the scouts to signal the rest of our forces. I want them all at our location before dusk.”
“And I will hear no more blasphemous nonsense coming out of your mouth. You take your orders from me, not from fairy tales. Do I make myself clear, lieutenant?”
After the incident with the mercenaries, Emrys had started moving his druids around. They rarely stayed in one place for longer than a few days. In theory, this made them harder to find – but in practice, not all of Murkwood was safe to spend the night in. In the end, they ended up migrating back and forth between the same places.
One of those places were the ruins of what had once been a fortress. It was one of Muiri’s favourites. The thick ring of trees growing around it provided them with cover, and with the seasons changing, the forest had shifted into beautiful shades of yellow, red and gold.
It was the perfect place to hide away from prying eyes.
But today, Emrys and his druids had company.
“When I said ‘bring me something big’, I was thinking about a large deer. Or maybe an elk.”
“So?” the woman in front of him replied. “You got extra.”
“Monoroe. That is a bear.”
The huntress raised a single eyebrow.
“Yes. I know what a bear looks like.”
“That’s not- how did you even- how on earth did you catch it?” Emrys asked. Monoroe merely gave a nod at her spear in response.
“How in the world… no. You know what? I don’t want to know.”
Emrys rubbed the top of his nose with his fingers. The Druid had had plans with that deer. Animal parts couldn’t be swapped around as spell ingredients. Exasperated, he looked down on the creature in front of him. The Druid let out an annoyed sigh.
“What am I supposed to do with a five hundred pound bear?”
“You cook it and eat it,” Monoroe responded.
“It’s a bear!”
“Bears are edible.”
“Everything is edible according to you,” Emrys grumbled. “Do you remember the weever fish? Because I remember the weever fish.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault that you can’t hold your spices.”
“It was poison, Monoroe!”
“Only a little bit! Gave it a real kick, don’t you think?”
Dear lord. Of course she would say that. I should have asked someone else.
Monoroe had never once delivered something the way he envisioned it. Not unless he gave her instructions in excruciating detail. He should have known better. Emrys knew that she couldn’t help it – but that did not make dealing with it any less annoying.
“Look. Just – just do me a favour and bring a normal deer next time. For Watcher’s sake.”
“Are you sure?” Monoroe grinned. “I can bring you other things. It’s much more fun to hunt for a-”
The huntress crossed her arms, pouting.
“Oh, fine. Spoilsport.”
Emrys signalled the rest of his druids, who swiftly came over and began to prepare the animal. Monoroe and Emrys looked on silently, him lost in thought, her humming in a low tone as she looked up at the surrounding trees.
Eventually, Monoroe turned towards him. When she spoke, her tone of voice was a lot softer than before.
“Emrys. How’s mum?”
That came as a surprise. Emrys couldn’t remember the last time that she had mentioned Eurydice, let alone asked about her wellbeing.
“I haven’t been to the grove lately,” The Druid said, answering honestly. “She seems well enough. I’ll pay her a visit next time we’re nearby.”
The Huntress next to him nodded, her smile widening a little.
“I’d like that.”
Emrys raised a single eyebrow.
“You could visit her yourself, you know. She’d welcome you with open arms.”
“Oh, I know.”
Emrys watched as the glimmer vanished from her eyes, being replaced by just the vaguest hint of anger.
“That’s exactly why I won’t go.”
On the other side of Murkwood, Tarquin and his men had finally arrived at their destination.
“Listen carefully,” the Duke of Nemeth said, raising his arm as he addressed the knights in front of him. “We are the elite. The tip of the spear that will pierce into Camelot. Our army will establish fortifications and turn this clearing into a stronghold. As the members of the vanguard, you are tasked with clearing and safeguarding the area until this is completed.”
Tarquin straightened his back, trying to make himself look as tall and imposing as possible.
He gave this task to me, The Duke thought. Not to some minor earl or baron. To me. At least someone still knows the value of true nobility.
Tarquin allowed a short silence to fall. With his eyes narrowed, he let his gaze wander over his men. Then, he continued.
“It is imperative that we secure this location. Our advancement into Camelot depends on it. I’m sure that you have all heard the rumours of witches and sorcerers living in the forest of Murkwood. These rumours are true- our scouts have reported multiple sightings to the north.”
“Their presence will not be tolerated. I will send a squadron to the north to eliminate them all. They are a danger to our operation and must be silenced at all costs. Do not spare a single one. Do I make myself clear?”
The knights in front of him answered in unison, as if they had rehearsed it in advance.
“Good. Now set up camp. I want this place cleared and secured within the hour.”
Simultaneously, Emrys and Monoroe noticed. The surrounding woods had gone quiet. Birds had stopped singing. Insects were silent. The calm rustling of leaves had completely faded away. They could hear nothing but the wind, howling eerily through the treetops.
Emrys frowned, raising a concerned eyebrow as he looked at the trees above him.
“This can’t be good.”
Emrys had felt the forest go quiet before. It was never a good sign. Emrys watched as the witch in front of him reached for her spear, her stance shifting slightly as her gaze was drawn southward. In a low tone, Monoroe spoke.
“Someone is here.”
In theory, Tarquin was supposed to oversee the process of setting up camp. In practice, the Duke of Nemeth couldn’t be trusted to properly oversee anything. His second-in-command ended up doing everything for him, from telling the men where to place the supplies to doing a headcount to make sure everyone was still there.
Raoul had half expected a few men to be missing. He’d had a terrible feeling ever since crossing that faerie ring, and the longer they marched, the worse that feeling became.
And he wasn’t the only one. Tarquin’s horse had been skittish and unruly. He refused to stay still, knocking over several knights as they tried to tie him to the nearest tree. When one of them almost got trampled by the beast, Raoul decided to step in.
“Whoa! Calm, boy! Calm!”
He knew his way around horses. Raoul made soothing noises as he calmed down the horse in front of him, softly placing a hand on the beast’s snout.
“Easy, boy. What’s got you so spooked?”
The knight watched as the horse’s head whipped around, looking at something in the distance. He could hear it snort nervously. There was something there. Raoul squinted his eyes to see what it was – then opened them as wide as gold coins when he realized what he was looking at. A chill ran down his spine. The lieutenant took an involuntary step back.
He barely noticed Tarquin walking up next to him.
“What in Watcher’s name is that?”
“It… it’s a place of ill omen,” Raoul answered. Tarquin’s expression immediately shifted to one of annoyance.
“I said that I would have no more blasphemous nonsense.” the nobleman spoke, his tone both arrogant and impatient. But this time, Raoul ignored his words. With an unusually serious expression, he looked towards the cave entrance.
“It’s not nonsense. Those places are cursed. We should stay away from them, captain. I’ve heard stories of people going in there and never coming back out.”
“Caverns like that… they hold the souls of the damned. Witches and sorcerers keep them from moving on and trap them inside of those hanging figures. They can use them to cast curses on everyone who crosses them. It’s a foul, unholy place- we should not go anywhere near it, captain. I propose that we leave this place behind and secure a different position far away from-”
“Leave it behind? Nonsense,” Tarquin answered, stroking his beard as he spoke. “It would be a shame to leave a strategic location like that unused. No, we shall clear it out and use it as a war chamber.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“I… cannot recommend that.”
“I do not care what you recommend. Fetch me a few men to clear it out.”
The lieutenant could not believe his ears. Was this man insane?
“But my lord, the witches-”
“Any witches that we catch will fall to our swords,” Tarquin replied, his voice quickly growing annoyed. “We will cut them down in the exact same way that we will cut down Camelot. Now do as you are told!”
Raoul had been harshly trained to carry out any order without hesitating. But even he had his limits. And tampering with the supernatural crossed those limits ten times over. He couldn’t do it. The lieutenant slowly shook his head.
“I… No. I can’t.”
Raoul could see a vein pulsating on the side of Tarquin’s head as the Duke of Nemeth immediately lost his temper. He stomped on the ground, raising his voice way beyond what was appropriate as he bellowed:
“No?! What do you mean, no?! I am your commanding officer! I gave you a direct order!”
Raoul shook his head again.
“Sire, we should not-”
But the Duke of Nemeth wouldn’t listen. The entire clearing fell quiet as their captain’s booming voice echoed through the makeshift camp.
“Silence! You will do as I say, when I say it, exactly how I say it! I am the Duke of Nemeth! I am fifteenth in line for the throne! You will obey me, or you will hang!”
And Raoul had finally had enough.
“Then I will hang,” he growled, a cold sense of anger overcoming him as he stared his captain down. “There is no reason to enter that cavern. There is no reason to even go near it. I will not pointlessly endanger the lives of myself or my men just to stroke your overgrown ego.”
“How dare you! I will have your head!”
Enraged, the Duke of Nemeth turned towards the nearest soldiers.
“Knights! Arrest this man immediately, and confine him to base! You, you and you! Clear that cavern immediately!”
Raoul didn’t resist. He allowed the knights to place his hands behind his back, feeling his weapon being taken off him in the process. But the lieutenant couldn’t help but smirk as his knights took one look at the cave – and immediately shook their heads at their captain.
“Nae a chance. That steid is cursed, capt’n.”
Raoul watched with a gleeful smirk as the Duke of Nemeth turned pink, then purple.
“Wha?! You insolent– name and rank, now! Both of you!”
Tarquin was known for a lot of things, but inspiring loyalty was not one of them. The nobleman was almost universally despised. That he had been promoted to captain did nothing to change that. If anything, he had become even more unpopular. It was a reputation that he could blame on nobody but himself. Raoul half expected the Duke of Nemeth to throw a tantrum right then and there – another thing that Tarquin was known for – but the nobleman ended up surprising him.
“Oh, for Watcher’s sake! Fine! I’ll do it myself.”
Raoul and the knights watched with growing surprise as their captain drew his sword and began to march towards the cavern entrance. That surprise rapidly turned into dread when Raoul realized that Tarquin was serious – the nobleman was not turning back. Within seconds, the Duke of Nemeth had bridged the distance to the cavern.
“Captain- wait! Don’t! Captain!”
But his yelling fell onto deaf ears. Raoul and the other knights watched in shock as their captain stomped past the skull markers at the entrance, marching right into the cursed witch’s den-
The Druid wasted no time. Acting on instinct, Emrys turned towards his people.
“We have to leave,” he spoke. “Muiri, take the others and head to the lake. I’ll join you as soon as we-”
But the rest of his sentence got stuck in his throat as he saw the witch next to him freeze. Her eyes widened. Emrys could feel a slow sense of dread overcome him as he saw the horrified expression on her face. When Monoroe spoke, her voice was barely audible.
“Emrys. They’ve entered the grove.”
This was bad.
This was very, very bad.
“I- I think it’s just one, I-”
The huntress in front of him suddenly let out a loud, blood-curdling scream. Her spear clattered to the ground. Monoroe grabbed for her head, howling as the witch recoiled in pain.
But the huntress didn’t answer. Emrys watched in shock as a burst of raw magic shot forth from the woman, echoing out in all directions and knocking him back. Hard. The Druid could see dozens of thorny vines begin to spread out from underneath her feet, digging themselves into the ground below. They looked almost like-
Oh no. Oh, Goddess.
“Muiri! take the others and run!”
The druidess didn’t move. Muiri stood frozen, speechless from shock as she watched the scene unfolding in front of her. Emrys let out a curse in response. He dashed towards the huntress, grabbing her shoulder as he yelled:
“Monoroe! Monoroe! Fight it! Get a grip on y-”
The rest of his sentence got cut off as a hand shot out and clasped around his throat. Emrys gasped as his access to air was abruptly and violently cut off. His feet were raised off the ground. The Druid struggled to break free, feet kicking uselessly as he could feel himself being lifted in the air.
Emrys could feel his windpipe being crushed. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. Within moments, it felt like his head was going to explode. Emrys grabbed onto the thorns on Monoroe’s arm, trying to focus on her eyes as the rest of the world rapidly turned into a blur.
But there was not a hint of recognition.
His friend was gone.
“It… it’s a place of ill omen, sire. We should stay away from them. I’ve heard stories of people going in there and never coming back out.”
“Caverns like that… they hold the souls of the damned.”
No… no way.
It can’t be.