Shadows filled the Raven’s Roost, but in the furthest corner was the most mysterious shadow of all.
They said he came up from the south earlier that day, leading a chestnut mare, and he had been at the tavern ever since.
The tavern keeper anxiously rearranged bottles of ale in the dim, flickering candlelight.
It was not often the tavern keeper opened his doors to strangers before opening hours, but he knew that it is not wise to deny men from the south refuge.
The southerner sat unmoving in the shade, peering out of the window with cold eyes. As the sun sank, a wave of black passed through the sky.
‘The ravens’ descent,’ he murmured, draining the last dregs of his ale.
The tavern keeper, who was checking the beer taps, took notice and lifted his head.
Outside, the ravens spilled down from the sky like a noxious tar filling the ancient ash tree.
The southerner got to his feet and stepped forward into the pale light. He was an unpleasant looking man with hair as red as flame. His skin was white, and it clung so tightly to his skull that his every feature seemed as sharp as razor blades.
‘So, you are to be going then?’ the tavern keeper asked nervously.
The southerner nodded, staring back at him with an uneasy smile on his face. He searched in one of the pockets of his thick, travel-worn overcoat. He took out two tarnished silver coins and placed them on the counter.
The door opened, and the first revellers of the evening trickled through, stealing the tavern keeper’s gaze momentarily.
When he looked back to wish the southerner well on his travels, to his relief, he was already gone.
The southerner slipped past the gathering patrons and left the tavern behind. Stepping out into the dusk, he pulled up the hood of his overcoat, shielding himself from the cold evening breeze.
In the stable’s opposite was his mare. She stood calmly next to the strong wooden post he had tethered it to. He patted her softly on the neck before loosening the leather reigns and climbing on her back. He gently nudged her in the ribs.
The Raven’s Rest was on the outskirts of Edwyn, a small merchant’s settlement which bordered the Lowlands. It was once wealthy, benefiting from healthy trade with the city of Merot, but long ago that the trade route had been abandoned. Now, it stood alone and isolated.
The streets were paved with broken cobblestones. They clattered against his horse’s iron shoes announcing his presence. Doors were shut, and windows bolted, as he passed through the alleyways into the market.
There were few townspeople in the marketplace at this hour, only a handful of dishevelled merchants still packing away their unwanted wares. They wearily watched the southerner as he rode by.
Around the settlement was a high wooden wall made from thick logs. There were gates at either side of it that both remain firmly shut after dark.
He signalled to one of the guards on the wall.
‘I need to get to the other side,’ he yelled up to him.
‘I’m under strict orders that this gate doesn’t open for anyone until morning.’
‘I need to get to the other side,’ he shouted up to him again, this time lifting up his overcoat at one side, to reveal a silver dagger hanging from his waist.
‘I suppose it won’t harm anyone if it’s open just for a second,’ the guard timidly reasoned. He went to heave up the north gate.
The gate slowly lifted, and the southerner passed into the Lowlands.
There was a dank trail of beaten earth which carved out a path to the Merot Bridge. It was impossible to see what lay beyond the path because the grass at either side grew so unruly and wild.
Behind him, he heard the gate drop heavily back to the earth.
He rode, a slow trot at first, but as his distance from the gatepost’s fires grew, it became faster. The constant thumping of the mare’s gallop soon became the heartbeat of the empty night.
Now that dusk had settled, a blanket of darkness covered over everything, and the only light was from the faint glow of the crescent moon. A bitter wind raged, and icy rain pelted the earth.
His horse slowed and pricked up her ears, sensing movement nearby.
The southerner drew in an icy breath, filling his lungs with air, and then he let it out with a sigh. He looked around. The high grass shook back and forth. In the air he could smell a lingering odour of distant smouldering, he scoured the plains to see where it came from, but he could see far enough to tell. ‘I’ve not got time for distractions,’ he snarled, firmly driving his horse on.
He had not gone far before he heard a howl that wrenched open the night.
He yanked on the mare’s reigns bringing her gallop to an abrupt stop.
‘Wolfhounds,’ he cursed.
From further up the path came four pairs of amber eyes. They were small at first, but growing bigger as the wolves approached.
He reached, as quietly as he could, beneath his overcoat to the pistol that was holstered to his waist.
The hounds picked up on this movement, quickening their pace towards him into a run.
He quickly pulled the pistol from his belt and fired off a bullet towards the first wolfhound.
The hound’s movement was too quick. The bullet missed, slicing through the air.
They were so close to him now that he could see their nostril’s flaring.
He fired off a second bullet, this time hitting the hound.
Lamely, it dropped to the floor with a thud. Blood bubbled from its belly.
The others stopped, snarling at him with frothy mouths. They thought better of going any further though. Instead, all three turned to their dead brother, and together they pounced.
To the sound of ravenous hounds feasting, he rode on.
Although the Lowlands were overgrown, there were no hills or mountains, so the icy winds rampaged freely, becoming harsher as the night went on, stinging any exposed flesh.
He pulled up the collar of his overcoat so that it covered the bottom of his face to lessen the sting.
In the distance, he could see the bridge to Merot.
If his plan was to work, he knew that he had to part with his companion and go onwards on foot.
‘It’s ok, girl,’ he reassured her, ‘I’ll come and find you when it’s done.’
He unstrapped the sheepskin harness on the mare’s back; taking off an empty satchel made of rough leather, and patted her on the neck.
He watched as the mare meandered uncertainly before galloping deep into the night.
He turned back and cautiously made his way towards the bridge.
She was sat on a boulder beside the bridge. She wore only white. The gown glowed incandescent against the dark of the night. In the light it gave off, he could clearly make out her face. She had a young face, with pale skin and long, flowing black hair. In other circumstances, she would be considered beautiful, but on a night such as this, beauty has no place.
She eyed him up and down, ‘another traveller seeking passage in the night it seems.’
‘What are you, refugee?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘You have no horse, and you travel unarmed. It is only refugees that have no gold to buy horses and coin to buy arms.’
‘You seek passage across the bridge to Merot?’
‘If I may.’
She laughed, ‘this is not my bridge, you can come and go as you please. Just do me this one last thing before you go?’
‘Dance with me under the moonlight,’ she asked, outstretching her arm.
He softly took her hand, ‘with pleasure, my lady.’
The two pirouetted and span gracefully under the glowing moonlight like two swans, one white, one black.
On the last spin he dropped to his knees, she fell back into his arms onto the dagger he had subtlety pulled from his belt.
She let out a harrowing scream as the dagger ripped into her back. He watched as the life drained from her eyes, and the black grew in them like a deepening puddle.
When they had turned completely black, she dissipated into a deathly fog.
She reappeared some distance behind him and leapt towards him.
Anticipating this, he spun around, throwing a crude steel chain at her. Upon impact, the chain split in two and wrapped itself around her sending her scrambling to the damp earth.
Again, she dissipated, this time leaving behind a mound of ash.
He looked around quickly, but she was now nowhere to be seen.
Then, as if he was struck with a hammer of ice, he was sent hurtling into the pit beneath the bridge.
The smell of charred flesh filled the air now like a choking gas. He held his breath so as not to desecrate his lungs with the foul air. Around him, there were decomposing bodies that had been impaled on spear-like thorns.
There was a thorn within arm’s reach from him. He snapped it off and clenched it in his hand, his dagger still in the other.
Stampeding out of the cloak of darkness came the white lady, on all fours, like a wild beast.
He lay calm and still as she charged towards him.
Just as the lady was upon him, he leapt to his feet, driving up into her heart both the thorn and dagger.
She fell heavily to the floor.
When he was sure she was dead, he knelt over her whispering some silent incantation, words too grim for even the harsh winds to carry.
He held his dripping dagger beside her slender neck, and in one swift motion slit her throat.