The red-stained moonlight reflected off the knight's antique silver armor, flashed from the sword raised in honorable salute to the enemy. Surrounding him were those slain in defense of the tower, the tower's massive bolt-studded door behind him yawning like the maw of some great beast.
Across the courtyard and beyond the iron gate off its hinges stood the instigator of the battle. This dark, bone-thin old man was dressed in rich Eastern robes as befit his station, robes of the softest black velvet embroidered with threads of silver and gold. Clutching at his shoulder there was an odd sort of creature, a freakish combination of vulture, cat, and snake, its yellow eyes gleaming orange in the blood-tinged light, same hue as its master's. Arrayed around the tower were this vizier's army, a vast bastion of souls clustered like wolves to the kill.
"You fool. Can you not see that I have won!", the old one rasped in a voice as dry and empty as his body seemed.
The knight's cinnamon-colored eyes flashed from beneath his white-plumed helm, in a surreal calm. His voice was sharp as a crystal, deadly-toned as a weapon.
"It shall never be truly yours- not while I or any of my blood yet live... For God, for True King, for Country!"
With this cry, the knight lowered his sword and began his last charge.
Catherine awoke with a start, the knight's resounding battle-cry still ringing in her ears. She blinked owlishly in the cool, dim light of the inn room, which was barred with watery moonlight from outside. The last of the red scene faded from her sight, and her headache returned once again.
It had been so real.
"Miss Derkesthan? Catherine?" The knock sounded again. "It is time for dinner, m'lady."
Captain McIntyre's muffled voice worked through the fog into Catherine's mind, and she threw the bedcovers off, pulling a shawl over her wiry frame in defense form the chill air.
"Are you well ma'am?" His voice took on that annoying condescending tone of his.
"Yes, yes, Captain", she answered, " I am quite fine thank you."
His footsteps started to retreat away in the clipped stride of his then quickly came back. Catherine sighed.
"The axle of your carriage was broken completely through after all, and there is no hostelry for repairs in this god-forsaken place, god-forsaken forest at that. To make Oxfordshire in time we shall have to go a-horseback and-"
"Yes, Captain," Catherine said dryly. "You do that. Now may I please attire myself?" She imagined his flustered reaction and her lips twitched upwards in a smile.
"Um...Certainly, ma'am." The footsteps beat a hasty retreat now.
Catherine crossed the room and snapped open the cover of her leather traveling-case removing her cream-coloured riding dress and necessities. She dwelled upon her strange, ever-continued dream as she dressed and attempted to order her uncontrollable red hair in a semi-proper fashion.
What could it all mean? Why do I have these dreams...It wasn't until we neared this place that they began again...The last time I felt like this was when Father and I visited our ancestral manor-house... She thought, fastening the last hairpin in place. With no answers, she rose from the divan and entered the main room of the Dragon's Brood Inn.
As Catherine descended the worn, wooden stairs she caught occasional snippets of conversation from the soldiers in her escort below, and the familiar smells of roast beef and fresh bread wafted up to her. Her mouth watered in hunger. There was also a spicy undertone to these scents, as of some type of Eastern spice were present as well. Her gaze was drawn around the room, observing how aged the place was.
The inn itself was an almost ancient-looking structure of whitewashed stucco and black wood- it had been an old English barn until it had been converted almost a century before. Now where resided horses and cattle, there were tables and chairs, most of these occupied by her escorts. In a far corner stood a bar, done in the same black wood as the rest of the inn was.
"Why, that absurd!", exploded the captain's voice, drowning out all other conversations.
"That's what the villagers say, sir..." Catherine recognised the sound of Corporal Hoskins voice, an Irishman if she had ever seen one.
"Preposterous Corporal! Its just a short-cut, a bloody road through a bit of forest!" As usual, the Captain was crying bloody murder at another thing. He always has a tendency to make an ordeal over the simplest of things, Catherine thought. The calvary soldiers looked at each other, bemused at the temperament of their new Captain.
"Still Cap'n- ye canna pay their weight in the Queen's gold to make them take ye there," Hoskins drawled.
"Well, we shall just have to- Oh! Good evening, Catherine, I hope your rest did you good..." McIntyre rose from his chair, and quickly came over to escort her towards the officer's table as she descended the last step. Around her in the brownish half-light of the high-beamed main room, her father's company rose to greet her, murmuring 'Good evenings'.
Captain McIntyre politely pulled out a chair for the Commander's daughter, and she sat with a rustling of cream linen skirts. She arranged the silverware to her liking and with a quick snap spread her napkin over her lap. Lifting her face from these tasks she noted bemusedly that the majority of the new members in the Dragon's Company hastily looked away from observing her. The Captain wordlessly took her plate and began to fill it with dinner. Catherine's stomach rumbled at the sight of the jucy beef.
"Oh, please do not let me interrupt your conversation, sirs. It sounded...most fascinating before."
She flashed them a brilliant smile, curious and intrigued about what they had been conversing about. The Captain flushed crimson and poured her a cup of the rich brown, local drink with unsteady hand.
"Um...Well. Er...I had Corporal Hoskins here-" The named man nodded. " See if there were any shorter routes to the King's Road leading north to Oxfordshire in time for your sister's wedding..."
Catherine nodded, and with a surge of irritation recalled the calf-deep mud, the result of hard winter rains. The team was unable to move the carriage until a score of the company's horses were hitched to it. Then the stress upon the axle beneath became so great that it broke cleanly in two.
"...And the innkeeper here," Catherine turned to regard the short, pudgy man behind the bar with the beer-stained apron." Said that if we are desperate enough, there is a route through the..." He consulted a map hastily sketched on a napkin, " Wyvern's Wood."
"Yes, we should probably take this road..." She smiled wryly. " I would not wish to miss being my dear sister's maid-of- honor."
"Now, good sirs, what was the argument about?" Catherine pinned the officers with a glance.
Some of the men shifted uncomfortably under her gaze in the inn's high backed wooden chairs, refusing to meet those penetrating eyes. Others muttered prayers under breath and made signs warding away evil. Hoskins cleared his throat, took a long pull of the local drink, and answered her inquiry.
"The villagers ha' eh legend about the wood over yonder, a bad one at that." He cast a glance at the Captain, who merely shrugged. (The Captain had locked horns with Commander Derkesthan only once before, and did not want to repeat the experience with a female version.)
Hoskins picked at his food, his worn green eyes thinking about the tale he was about to tell.
"It seems that oh, eigh' hunnerd or so years ago, the place 'round these parts 'twas nowt but a plain with a heap o' hills, flat as Jerkin's griddle cakes," Jerkin made a face at the Corporal that promised retribution of this slight. "One o' the old battle-towers were on it... Ye know, the ones built 'round when that lich o' a counselor o'erthrew King Richard."
"Go on, " Catherine stated after he paused to take a sip of brown drink. He more willingly continued as the Irish part of him that liked to tell a good yarn took him over. Catherine found her earlier dream beginning to surface, and her eyes saw the red moonlight yet again...
"There were a slew o' King's knights in that tower, an' since there wasn't much worries 'tween tae Tower and London, all the Knights there were still those loyal to the rightful King. But there came one day th' counselor, a ex-vizier from out East, brought his army and engines o' war to the tower, last of its kind..."
The dark, bone-thin old man was dressed in velvet robes rich as befit his station...
"-And 'fore anyone knew it, there was naught but one knight left-"
Tall and defiant, he stood in the crumbling courtyard alone.
"- As there was odds o' a hunnerd to one, that last knight lost. Not before he charged that bloody vizier tho'. " His voice lowered dramatically. "Some say that blackguard used sorcery tae kill the knight, but not 'fore tae good man made a promise-"
'It shall never truly be yours-
"-Then tae knight died, but the vizier couldnae put hide nor hair in tae Tower gate. Th'forest seemed to grow 'round overnight, and its said the knight's shade-"
-Not while I or any of my descendants yet live.'
"-Still defends the place, and tae traitor is still trying t' take it over still. But this is just all some addle-brained local's tale...Miss Catherine?"
A shiver of premonition swept over Catherine, making her skin turn cold, and goose bumps crawl across her cream-sheathed arms. The headache had returned with a vengeance. McIntyre glared at Hoskins and quickly picked up the young woman's hand to chafe it. Hoskins picked up his mug and drained it, keeping an eye on the Commander's daughter.
"Ma'am, are you all right?" The Captain asked.
Catherine quickly drew her hand back and murmured in a husky tone, "Yes, Captain, I am fine... Still, I cannot miss the wedding of my own flesh and blood." Her temples pounded, and her eyes were awash with a scene from another time...
"It is only a legend, not true in the least- By Jove there cannot be any truth! Talk of heirs coming back- absurd I tell you!" McIntyre shrugged.
Her cinnamon-colored eyes opened suddenly, and they flashed in the lantern's light.
"We will take the shortcut."