I am excited to share the ‘work-in-progress’ prologue of my forthcoming novel, code named Ignis Fatuus for now. As the book is still being written, what you see below may differ in the final product, but I wanted to share this with those waiting patiently for my next work. It may be a little rough around the edges – some grammar to correct here and a plot hole to patch there – such is life when it comes to drafts. I am working hard to get this new novel finished and hope to tie it all up by the end of 2016, with an early 2017 release date. But for now, enjoy this snippet and get ready for a new story!
There was every indication of a storm brewing. The autumn, when the year is closest to death while still remaining alive – the coming storm would snuff out the season. Vaporous vipers of mist coiled about the trees as adornment for the cobwebbed forest. They hung from the branches; slithered over root and rotted leaves, gliding silently down the hillside until they slid over the surface of slowly freezing lake, coating the land with death, clouding over the decay of plant matter that sighed upon the cold earth in soggy clumps. The emaciated branches clung desperately to the last of the leaves, although those star-shaped growths were long dead and shrivelled at the caress of late November wind; they would offer no further comfort. The lake ruffled under the skimming fingers of wind, and above, reflected and multiplied by the mirrored surface, thousands of small lights flickered like candles. They danced on their own accord, phantasmic and mysterious, though none could claim ownership of them. They were not fireflies. They were not the eyes of a myriad of beasts. Nor were they the oil lanterns of travellers on this ill-frequented forest path. The will of the wisp – ignis fatuus – hovered like eldritch comets against the evening backdrop of the lake.
Accentuating the natural din of forest a certain foreign sound danced across the staff lines of the gale in pianissimo patters. Through the meditative wind rush it was betrayed not by its volume, but rather the intrusiveness of such noise. A noise that did not belong in this wild scene – it was the roar of peoples. It was the thunderous clap of hooves. A fallen tree, hollowed out so that its rotted shell could offer sanctuary, housed the fearful huddle of a couple in hiding. They clung to one another, cursing the sharp breaths that escaped their lips in audible utterances – a concomitant of both cold and fright. The man cradled the woman as though she were a wounded bird, albeit his strong arms offered little warmth or protection from the elements, as such the both of them were wracked with shivers. He glanced at her dark head; wisps of black hair strung themselves over the florid beauty of her face, which presently upturned to his. Her eyes, of a piercingly beautiful green, betrayed the assailing fear that mounted in her breast. The look she gave belied the falsity of his confidence; a look that desperately implored that they had not pressed far enough into the forest to escape their predator. The man knew this to be true, and the fear of his mistress only further aggravated his composure. There was little he could do but accept that they were trapped.
He stifled a cough as the woman buried her head in the billows of his cloak. She looked up again imploringly, “The wind is wild! The trees are alive! Surely none would see us moving through the forest!”
Her urgent whisper hissed through the wind so that it was lost as soon as it was uttered; the man’s heart lurched nonetheless, and he begged her silence. He did not respond immediately, but instead gazed out carefully from behind the tree to where the sky reddened above the canopy. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words choked in his throat and he cursed the audible baritone of his own murmurings, “The sun will soon set. It is then that we can make a move.”
The woman said nothing, but the tear that streaked down her face was enough to shatter the man’s heart and dash any intrepidness from his composure.
A skewbald stallion strode betwixt the birch boles. The pelt of the horse shone with an alpine white, splotched in various places with an autumnal auburn, giving it the very embodiment of the early winter forest in which it glided. Its rider sat hunched and hollow, a ghostly husk atop saddle, drained of his mental energy. His eyes glazed with an unspeakable rage, a rage that increased with each passing second. He strained his ears, but the wind quite obviously impeded whatever it was he was hearing for, and as such his face contorted to a grimacing snarl. Behind him, a small cavalry of horsemen followed obediently, faceless and sombre, as though mere trailing shadows of the first rider shifting with the fading light.
“We’ve but little time sir,” one of them murmured, “The night will shield them.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” snapped the skewbald rider.
He wheeled his horse around with difficulty, the uneven forest floor proving troublesome. From beneath his wild greying hair his eyes cut deep into his henchmen. It was a glare that they feared, a glare that spoke more than words ever could. Yet still he barked, “Find her. I do not care what it takes. I will have her returned!”
“Sir,” came a cry, “what of the man?”
Here the skewbald rider flew into a rage, withdrawing his sword and aiming its blade skyward, “I care not what becomes of that devil! Let him die by your sword or by the unforgiving forest! Just return her to me!”
Here the men dispersed, taking unique paths through the trees, while the skewbald rider steadied his stallion and again cursed through his teeth.
The woman sobbed wretchedly from the shelter of the fallen tree. She watched as the man crept out from their hiding spot and surveyed the surroundings. He turned back to her with a new vigour in his determination.
“We need to make for the lake, if we can get there unseen, their horses will not be able to travel down the steep embankment.”
“Could he have assumed us to have made further ground?”
“That is what I am hoping. Come.”
Fighting against the trembling in her legs she arose and followed him into the trees.
Having lost sight of his men, the skewbald rider continued down the sodden path. The forest oozed with damp; the freezing moisture dripping from the trees like cold sweat, while the ground beneath his horse’s hooves shifted as they struggled on.
She surely cannot have gotten far in these conditions, not without a horse or provisions.
He cursed the wind as it cut coldly into him. About his body clung a vibrant vigour; truly the forest was alive. Through the trees he could see the sludge-like surface of the lake some distance down the hill, and cursed the ghost lights that appeared in the corners of his vision. Those mischievous fairies of luminance gave the impression of the torches of wandering travellers; he vehemently hoped one of them would illuminate his renegade wife. But each floating mote of light that met his gaze brought nothing with it, and as such only added fuel to his fury.
Curse those lights!
He would then shoot to attention, for from a distance came an otherworldly holler. A shiver rattled down his spine, and it would take the skewbald rider a few seconds to comprehend that the cry was not that of some eldritch beast, but rather a twofold bellow of man and horse. Had his wife been found? The stallion was kicked briskly into a gallop, its hoof claps underlining its nervous braying, for the trees were close and the ground uneven. More voices began to permeate in the forest, and for a moment the rider would again feel a mysterious uneasiness. Something sinister seemed to lurk in the trees, an unseen charlatan of mischief that had the rider’s blood go cold. But no, it could not be a phantom – those voices indeed belonged to his men, as was confirmed as he entered a small clearing where the cavalry was huddled about a thrashing mass of cloth and flesh. Dismounting, he brandished his whip and moved towards them.
“Stand aside!” he barked, “At last…”
But he would not see that which he desired. Below the party of horsemen lay a crippled mare that complained in a sickening whinny, its rider pinned painfully beneath its girth.
So this is what made that awful moan.
“A rabbit warren, sir,” said one of the men, “she caught her foot in it.”
“You mean you have not found her yet?”
“N-no sir. Nowhere to be seen, and we must turn back to the house! This pair needs attention and the sun is all but gone!”
“I’ll have you all freeze to death before we turn back. We are not turning back until my wife is recovered!”
“Sir,” cried another man, “I beg you to reconsider. We -”
“Get the man out from beneath that animal.”
The fallen rider, a young boy only recently of age, limped gingerly on his leg, bracing himself against his comrades while the mare continued to groan on the ground. Before the men could react the skewbald rider snatched his blunderbuss and shot the beast, instantly silencing it.
The astonished riders gaped, instantly taken aback. The clumsy weapon had been enough to snuff out the life of the injured horse, the eyes of the men dropping as their leader glared at each of them one by one.
From the edge of the clearing the crows scattered; black wing beats pounded the air, and through the tousle of midnight feathers the skewbald rider saw what he was looking for. Those eyes, those incomparable green eyes stared fixedly upon him; fear rooting the woman to the spot. In a second both were running. The rider trailed his renegade wife with cumbersome steps, the heavy blunderbuss his burden. Amongst the branches that brushed against his face as he ran he could discern another figure – his old friend, his betrayer.
So it is as I feared.
He pursued the couple desperately, the treble struggling with the elements that pressed on them at all sides. The wind roared, the branches whipped and struck, the mud shifted beneath their hurried flight. They rumbled down the hill with reckless abandon, the trio locked in a futile stalemate where neither party was advancing upon or moving further towards escape.
“Harlot!” roared the pursuer, “Cease this amour! You would forsake me? You would forsake your children?!”
Bursting onto the lakeside, the renegade man tripped and slid painfully across the thick ice that coated the surface. His attacker wasted no time in leaping upon him, at last realising the uselessness of his lumbering blunderbuss and withdrawing instead a small dagger from his belt. The two men fought on the ice, hurling their fists in a flurry of primal fury. The ice groaned as both men were slammed into the frozen surface in the struggle. Yet in spite of his blind focus upon his abhorred rival, neither man would be deaf to the tiny cry that escaped the blue lips of the woman they fought for. Still clasping at each other’s collars they turned to where she had slid further from the shore onto the ice shelf. Both had not realised the extent of their brawl sending an ominous fissure between her and the safety of the shore, and now all that accompanied the wind’s howl was the blood-curdling crack of splitting ice. For a second that seemingly lasted for an eternity the treble were frozen in fear, the woman’s eyes bulging with awful terror, before at last the horrible groan of the ice grew louder and she was plunged into the inky lake water. Her scream would only sound for a moment before it was smothered by the frigid needles of the tarn, while her husband and lover could only watch in horror as the prize of their jealously was lost beneath the darkness of the lake. Above the wind came the very same moan heard earlier by her husband, though perhaps it was merely the trickery of the foreboding nature surrounding. For when both men were able to wrest their eyes from that wretched spot – that black pool that intruded upon flawless ice – they could observe the Ignis Fatuus, the eyes of the Will-O-The-Wisp staring down upon their treachery.