For the tenth story, I knew that I wanted to return to Trip and Victor. This was also a genre I haven't really tried; horror. I think it turned more into surrealism that actual suspenseful storytelling, but I'm sure I can practise. It's not really my forté but I'm sure I can work on that!
The hillside sloped lazily down towards the path and Trip ran down it, gleefully pinwheeling his arms around. The wind whipped his robes around him and teased at the stubbly hair growing through on his head. He reached the bottom, sandals crunching on the gravelly road, and looked back up the hill. Like some dark patch of treacle slowly sliding down a wall, Victor was making his surly way towards the path.
The man looked older, Trip thought. Visibly. Like the events of Fennica, just a few short weeks, had aged him. He was still made of boot leather and twice as tough, but there was a definite slouch that hadn’t been there.
I should do something for him, was the thought that started it all. Trip looked around, got his bearings, and grinned as a memory rose up in his mind.
-Sitting by the firelight, on a camping trip away from the monastery-
-Books read by candlelight, restricted books, but fun-
-The look on Simon’s face, Joel’s behind him, as he retold the stories-
Trip felt a pang of sorrow. The Library was gone, the children scattered, the book-keepers dead or captured. Some malevolent force, whatever had animated Father Liam, whatever had given High Father Hork his immense power and whatever had subverted the tree at Fennica had launched attacks on Rootholme and the Library simultaneously. Hork had tried his best to blame it on the Gargorians - who had themselves confirmed the attack on Rootholme - but the Library was squarely on Hork’s conscience. What was left of it. The man was dead, after all.
Scowling, Trip realised that the train of thought and memory had taken him to a place he didn’t want to be.
“You a’right, boy?” Victor growled.
“Yeah,” Trip replied. He waved at the hill. “It’s a barrow, y’know. The tomb of a king.”
Victor looked back at the hill. “That so? Well, good fer it,” he said, and turned to walk along the path.
“Ritania. King Ritania,” Trip said. “There’s a story to go with it. A campsite story.” He smiled suddenly, an idea occurring to him. “You want to hear it?”
“We ain’t campin’ here.”
“We could,” Trip said. “There’s a stream a short distance away; I remember it on the map.”
“‘Course you do,” Victor said, then sighed. “Well, I can’t say I’d complain. Feet’re feelin’ m’age.”
It didn’t take long to make camp. Trip was well used to it by now; Victor would sit down on a log or something similar and watch while the boy made a fire, set up cooking equipment, unrolled bedrolls and generally took care of the business of the day. Horses would have been fed, but they’d had to sell them in the previous town in exchange for food.
The light was well and truly fading by the time a simple soup was cooked, and Trip silently gave thanks that copying out long tracts from ancient cookbooks had given him at least a working knowledge of food preparation. He dug out two chipped wooden bowls from his pack and poured soup into both of their bowls, a little more into Victor’s.
“‘Ere now,” the old man said. “T’other way around with them bowls.”
Trip rolled his eyes, but took the one with more in it. His stomach reminded him that it was a good thing he did, but his heart sank a little as he seemed to watch Victor fade every day.
“Tell me this story then, boy,” Victor said, putting his empty bowl down. In the morning, one of Trip’s first jobs would be to wash the bowl and return it to the pack along with the rest of the cooking equipment.
Trip closed his eyes and allowed the memory to wash over him.
“In the dim and distant past, when the Grand Concord was still wet with ink, there was a king,” he began. “King Ritania of Southern Dorth. He wasn’t really the king, of course; just a pretender, one of many that Dorth spawned.” He placed his own bowl down on top of Victor’s and settled in to the tale.
“This king was consumed by greed and envy. He saw what others had and lusted after it. He took what he could by force, by coercion, by legitimate trade, but it was never enough.
“He heard about a princess of a tiny neighbouring kingdom, one that doesn’t exist now, called Yol. The princess was reputed to be the most beautiful in all Ehrian, so beautiful that a star had fallen in awe at her and now blazed at her breast on a chain of the finest silver.
“Naturally, Ritania yearned for both the princess and her treasure, so he arranged for a diplomatic envoy to be sent to Yol. It returned minus the envoy’s head.
“Incensed at this, Ritania ordered his elite group of soldiers to go in and take her by force. One by one, their horses returned, each bearing a rider tied to his mount. Their heads were tied to a final horse, which had been sent to bear the princess back.”
The fire crackled and popped, and the small sounds of the night seemed to have dimmed as Trip warmed to his tale. The words flowed easily, interpreting his memory and couching it in terms he might use as a boy, rather than the adult who wrote it; a skill he was finding more and more useful.
“Ritania decided that this was enough that he could go to war. He gathered his armies, pitiful compared to what we might muster today, and rode out on the back of his charger.
“They rode for three days and three nights, and when they reached the borders of Yol they halted, for the grass was blackened in an almost-perfect line where the map stated Yol began. The trees beyond the divide were leafless and grey, and a perpetual storm roared overhead, though the weather in Dorth was clement. Most strange of all, at regular intervals along the line, there were strange bony stalagmites poking up through the soil.
“Regardless, Ritania rallied his troops and charged in. Their charge slowed; not a single person did they see. They trotted, then walked, then slowed their horses even further. No buildings were on the horizon; no people were moving. Not a single sound could be heard. The skies darkened still further and Ritania’s men began to worry, but he rallied them a second time and they made camp.
“The night seemed long, and Ritania awoke to utter darkness. A voice was calling him. Young. Quiet. Carried by the wind. Female. He left his tent, leaving his armour and weapon, and walked out into the centre of camp, and there beheld a sight he would remember for the rest of his life. A woman, stood by one of the dead trees, dressed in a long green dress. At her breast, a glimmering light sparkled and shimmered. She was barefoot, blonde and young. She beckoned to Ritania, and he moved towards her. All around him, men were sleeping, and he smiled in self-satisfaction that the ruler of Yol had decided to send this princess out to prevent death in his land.
There was a sad smile on the face of the princess and, as Ritania got closer, he felt a cold wind blow past her, though it didn’t ruffle the girl’s hair or dress. She opened her arms to him and he stepped into the embrace, feeling utter coldness press against him, surround him. The ground heaved under his feet, and then… it hinged. All around him, the land seemed to be sloping upwards, as if some gigantic mouth were closing. The stalagmites, evenly arranged around the sloping land, suddenly changed into teeth from his perspective, and Ritania screamed as he, and his whole army, were swallowed up by the land itself.”
Trip pointed over Victor’s shoulder at the mound. “Legend says that the creature that swallowed them died, so bitter was Ritania’s heart, and sank into the earth leaving only that barrow, inside which Ritania and his entire army are forever buried.”
There was a silence broken only by the crackling of the fire.
“That it?” Victor asked.
“Not quite,” Trip said, leaning forward to allow the fire to under light his face. “Some say that, when the moon is full and the night is quiet, the voice of the princess can still be heard, calling out to any fresh prey that will come near.” He waited for the appropriate moment, readying an impression of her in his mind.
Then Victor burped.
“That it?” he said.
“Well, yes,” Trip replied.
“Well it seems a bit silly,” Victor said. “I mean, what happened to the princess? She got swallowed too, aye?”
“I… I think she’s supposed to be a vision. A lure, something to draw people in that they can be eaten,” Trip said, brow furrowed.
“Very little country, was Yol?”
“Well, yes, I suppose. Look, it’s just a story,” Trip said, a little put out. “No need to get all fiddly about it.”
“Ah now, boy, I could tell ye a story or two,” Victor said, then shook his head. “But I ain’t got the energy fer it now. Tryin’ to work out the holes in yer story has fair worn me out.” He gave a devilish grin. “Bedtime for this old codger.”
Trip watched as Victor curled up under his blanket, armour and weapons off but within hand-reach, and scowled. The old git could at least have said-
Victor cleared his throat. “Thank you, boy,” he said gruffly. “Nice t’hear yer voice, I guess.”
Trip smiled and lay down on his own bedroll, not quite believing that the Victor who’d said that was the same surly old man whose house he’d accidentally destroyed those many months ago.
The moon was full, a few clouds scudding over it, and Trip listened to the sounds of the night. An owl hooted off in the distance, and a few crickets took advantage of the dying embers of the fire for warmth, but otherwise the night was quiet. Comforted by warmth and companionship, he close his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.