How long he had spent on the river, he had no way of guessing, because there was no day or night and no way to mark the time.
Under the lowering red sky, the blood of the river looked almost black, and when the bone of the paddle threw up drops which spattered on the hull of skin and sinew, they dried in streaks and blotches which reminded him of writing in some arcane language he didn’t understand.
For longer than he cared to remember, the river’s banks hadn’t changed. The trees still bent their bare branches over the flowing blood. Things chattered and ran through the branches and along the riverbank, half-seen; things which looked like rats, but which he was sure weren’t.
He was not good at paddling, and the boat was small and crude, so that it was unsteady in the sluggish current, and he was glad that the flow was not strong enough to tip him over. If he fell into the blood, in his armour he would sink like a stone. And, perhaps even more importantly, the book beside him would be lost.
He glanced down at the book frequently, as he paddled. It was the whole purpose of the journey, the key to everything. Or so the demon had told him.
Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, but he had long since lost sight of the old tower where he’d started on his journey and where he’d left the beast. Whenever he thought of it he felt a wrenching of regret that he’d had to leave it behind. He missed it much more than he could have believed possible.
The beast hadn’t reacted, of course, when he’d said goodbye. It had stared out over the river with supreme indifference, and he was certain that it didn’t care if it never saw him again.
The sky had been turning red for days as they had worked their way down from the mountains. Each morning, it would be a little redder, and each night the glow from the horizon would blot out the stars.
Even the demon had been uneasy, though she had done her best to mask it. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before,” she said, when he’d asked her. “At least not in...this world. Don’t worry about it, it’s probably nothing.”
“Have you been this way before?” he asked, unsure if he was seeking reassurance or just out of curiosity.
“No,” she answered shortly. “But, as I said, don’t worry. It’s likely nothing.”
But as the days went by, the red glow overshadowed everything, until the night and day were one and there was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars. They could ask nobody about it, because the few villages they passed were abandoned, and clearly had been for some time. But sometimes the knight thought he could hear a crying far away, beyond the sullen red glow in the sky, as if the world was screaming in mortal agony, just over the horizon.
Then, possibly one morning, they had come down from the mountains and reached a high and desolate plateau. Once it must have been a battlefield. The evidence was all around, broken weapons and scattered bones. He’d stooped to examine some of the weapons, and found the lance.
It had been a very old lance, of wood so ancient that it had darkened to the colour of iron. And instead of being tipped with metal, it had a point of bone, which had been discoloured almost to the point where it was indistinguishable from the rest of the weapon.
He’d been about to touch the tip when the demon had stopped him. “Don’t.”
He’d looked at her, surprised. “Why not?”
“This isn’t a good place,” she’d said. “Even I can’t protect you here, Man. We should get down from here at once, and down on the plain.” She’d looked at the lance. “That thing is from a time so old that I have no knowledge about it, no idea of how to handle it. Everything here is like that. Have you looked at these bones?”
He’d felt a shiver play along his spine. “What about them?”
“They aren’t human bones, or the bones of any creature I know. This place is old, Man, old and evil. We can’t stay here.” She’d taken the lance out of his hand effortlessly, and thrown it away. The tip had struck a rock, which hissed and bubbled. “See.”
He’d looked at her and at the rock, and remembered that he’d been about to touch the point.
“Thank you,” he’d said, inadequately.
“Save your thanks till we’re out of here, Man.”
“Where are we going?” he asked her, as they made their way down off the plateau, and left the battlefield behind. “Why didn’t we go back the way we came?”
She glanced at him. “Because this thing, whatever it is, is spreading, Man. Haven’t you noticed? Even if we were to stand here for a while and look at this sky, you’d see it growing redder and lower. It’s spreading, and it has to be stopped.”
“How do we stop it?”
She didn’t reply for so long that he would have asked again if she’d been human. “I don’t know what’s doing it, but it’s in the direction where we’re going. We’ll have to find out when we get there, I suppose.”
So they went down from the plateau, and finally they came out on to the plain. It was a featureless plain, except for the black trees with leafless branches, which sometimes rustled and moved though there seemed to be no wind. And there was the tower, in the distance, a slender spire of stone rising up from the plain.
Without speaking, he turned the beast in the direction of the tower, and the demon made no attempt to object. It had been much further than he’d thought, and by the time they were close enough to make out detail the hills they had left had faded to a smudge in the red haze of the horizon.
Once it had been a wonderful structure. Even the passage of time had failed to wipe away the smooth clean lines of the stone, unmarred by carvings or damage until the point, so high that it could barely be seen, where it snapped off like a broken stick. Only a jagged point of rock pointed up at the sky, like an accusing finger.
“What do you think it was?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the demon said, “but I wonder what one might be able to see from up on top. Wait.” In a moment she had disappeared, and all he glimpsed was a shadow gliding up the stone.
While waiting for her to return, he rode the beast around the base of the pillar. It was much broader around than he’d thought, too, though of course it would have to be, to support something so high. There were no doors that he could see, no aperture of any kind. By the time he’d returned to the starting point the sky was definitely an angrier shade of red and the demon was waiting for him.
“There’s a river not far away,” she said, pointing. “We’ve got to make for it. Whatever we’re looking for, it lies downstream. I saw something that looks like docks.”
“What’s that?” He pointed at the object she was carrying.
“I found it up at the top, where it’s broken.” She showed it to him. It was a book, bound in old leather that had turned almost black. When he took it he found it was so heavy that he almost let it fall. “Take a look.”
He opened it. The pages were of parchment cracking at the edges, and inscribed with characters which seemed to change and shimmer before his eyes. “What does it say?”
“I can’t say yet. I haven’t had a proper look, and the language is strange to me. But I think that I can understand it – given time. Let’s make for the river, and we’ll see.”
He’d looked at the demon, and suddenly it was as though it was the first time he’d ever seen her; not as a supernatural being whom he resented as much as accepted, but as something else; a vulnerable, sensitive soul with her own insecurities, someone who was as much finding his way as he was. “Let’s go,” he said, more gently than he might otherwise have.
“There’s one more thing, Man.”
“I don’t think the river is water,” she said.
He stared at her before turning the beast’s head away. The demon stood watching for a few moments, and then followed slowly.
They found the boat at the dock. There was just the one, pulled up on the shore and overturned as though the owner had left it there and would return in a short while. But the bottom was dusty and when they turned it over, the paddle underneath was of bone so old that it reminded the knight of the spear on the plateau.
“It’s only big enough for one of us,” he’d said.
“Leave the beast,” she returned. “If we succeed, maybe someday we’ll come up river again. If not...”
He’d waited till it was certain that she wouldn’t continue. “What about you?”
“Keep the book by your side, in the boat. I’ll be inside it, reading.” She’d hesitated a little. “Man?”
“Until I’m sure I’ve got all I can from the book, until I come out of my own accord, don’t open it. Don’t call me, either. You’ll have to handle anything you encounter alone, till then. But I’m sure you can manage.”
He’d looked at her, trying to understand what she wasn’t saying. “But suppose we get where we’re going, before you get what you want from the book. Then what?”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen, Man. I think wherever this river is taking us, it’s going to be a very, very long way away.”
“How will I know when I get there?”
She’d laughed, the first time in longer than he cared to remember. “Oh, you‘ll know, Man. You will know.”
The black hump on the riverbank had probably been a considerable building once, perhaps a fortress. It was hard to tell.
It had been hidden behind a bend in the river, so that by the time he noticed it the boat was already fairly close, and he had to make a quick decision whether to steer for the bank or to pass it by. A quick look at the book gave no solace. It lay inert as it had since he had laid it down by his side.
In the moments that were left to him before it would be too late to change his mind, he took in the edifice. The black stone blocks of which it had been made had tumbled into a shapeless ruin, but there were still walls standing, and between them he could see the red light reflecting off pillars and polished stone.
“Damn, demon,” he muttered between his teeth. “What should I do now?”
His hands had already made the decision for him, pushing the paddle into the blood to shift the boat awkwardly shorewards. Some of the stone blocks had fallen into the river, forming a barrier to the flow and a tiny harbour, so it was not as difficult to touch land as it might otherwise have been.
Clambering out of the boat, he pulled it up on the stone. It was heavy work, and left him straining with the effort, but he had a sudden fear that if he left the boat in the river he would never see it again. Besides, there was the book.
Slipping it under his chain mail, where it lay heavy against his skin, he turned towards the ruin.
There was someone watching him. He had realised this before taking three steps towards the nearest standing wall. Someone was standing behind the wall, just out of sight, watching. He could see the shadow.
“All right,” he said. “Whoever you are. Come out and show yourself, or I’ll come in with my sword swinging.”
There was a moment’s pause, and she came out.
He stopped where he was, and if he had been holding the book or the sword in his hands he’d assuredly have let them fall.
She was silver and gold and magic and moonlight, and she was everything he’d ever yearned for, everything he’d remembered and forgotten.
“Here I am,” she said, spreading out her hands. “As you wanted. Are you happy?”
“Lady.” He worked his tongue in his mouth to free it. “Lady –“
“Where have you come from?” she asked, taking a short step closer. “I have waited in this horrible place, so long, waiting for someone to come, anyone. I’ve waited until I could no longer bear the wait, and still no one would come. Where have you come from? Are you real?”
“I’m real.” He held out his hand for her to touch. Her fingers were long and slim, and they flinched away from the armour of his gauntlet. “I’m very real. Who are you, Lady?”
She looked at him as though she still could not believe it. “Who am I...? Does my name really matter? I don’t even remember if I ever had a name, but I must have, I suppose.” She sat down on a block of stone, and leaned her head on her hands. “Will you take me away?”
He looked at the boat and back at her. “Can you tell me how you came to be here?”
She looked up at him. “It’s a fairly long story. Sit here beside me and I’ll tell you.”
The book lay heavy against his stomach, and the block of stone was small. Besides, sitting down he couldn’t look at her. “I’ll stand, Lady.”
“Well, then.” She looked down at her hands. “I remember some of it, not everything. I lived here, you know.”
“Yes, it wasn’t as you see it now. Back then, it was a staging point on the river, and there were people here, soldiers and traders and the like. My husband was here too.”
“He was the officer in charge of the soldiers here. We were very happy together, were thinking of having a baby.” She looked up at him and down again. “It seems funny to think of all that now.
“The stories came, of bandits, out on the plain. Entire caravans destroyed, wiped out with no survivors. Nothing was left. Do you understand?”
“Nothing?” he asked. The way she had said it seemed to have some special significance to her.
She nodded. “Nothing. Nobody knew who had done it, but the scourge was moving closer. Each day it crept closer to this place, until the traders began to demand that my husband and his soldiers do something about it.
“The night before he left, my husband came to me. ‘Put this on,’ he said, handing me an amulet. ‘Before I left home, my mother gave it to me as a charm against danger. Wear it next to your heart, and it will keep you safe while I’m gone.’
“ ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘You’re the one who will need to guard against danger.’
“But he only laughed. ‘With my strong right arm and my men, I’m well enough protected,’ he said. And before daybreak, he had left along with his men. I never saw him again.
“Two nights later, this place was attacked. I was asleep then, and woke to find the walls already breached and the air filled with fire and smoke and screams. But the screams did not last long.
“My first thought was to flee for my life. There was a way out through the back, a narrow passage my husband had shown me. It was only known to the soldiers, as an emergency exit. I only paused long enough to snatch up my husband’s charm, and then I rushed towards it. But something must have happened to me – maybe I breathed in too much smoke. I must have fainted.
“And when I woke up, I saw them. Gathered around me, looking down, watching.”
There was a pause. “They weren’t just bandits, were they?” he asked, gently. “Something much worse?”
She looked up with desperate eagerness. “You understand, then. When I saw their faces, the fangs dripping blood and their monstrous faces, I would have fainted again. And when I saw what they had done to the rest, to the traders and the servants and the others, I wanted them to kill me. But they would not kill me, and after a while, I understood that they could not.”
“The charm,” he said.
“Yes, of course it was the charm. Can you imagine what I went through after that? Can you imagine my being amongst those...things...knowing that them being here meant that my husband and the others must be dead? That everyone was dead, except me?” She shook her head. “If you could only imagine that, you would understand what I had to do.”
“You threw the charm away,” he said with complete certainty.
She jumped to her feet. “Yes, I threw it away. I thought they would kill me then, and set me free. But they wouldn’t do that any longer. They had other uses for me.”
He looked at her then, and saw in her eyes, and saw what she really was. “Stay back, Lady,” he said quietly.
“They made me one of them,” she said quietly. She took a step closer to him. “They made me one of them, and set me sentinel here, to watch till they returned. But they never came back, ever again.”
“Stand back,” he repeated sharply. His hand went over his shoulder, to the sword. “I shan’t tell you again.”
“And there was nobody here, all this time,” she went on, as though he had not spoken. “Except you.”
He was still reaching for his sword when she threw herself at him. He leaned back, instinctively, and his foot slipped on the stone. He fell backward, landing heavily, as she fell on top of him, but her momentum carried her over his head and among the stones. When he scrambled to his feet, she was lying among them like a broken doll, her limbs scattered awkwardly. He didn’t dare come close to her.
She was stirring when he pushed the boat back into the river, and sitting up when he began paddling away. “Come back,” she called desolately. “I’ve been lonely so long. Come back and make me whole.”
He ignored her, turning his head away. Her cries followed him a long time afterwards, and towards the end merged into a desperate, fading scream of hopeless agony.
The noise of the waterfall began so gradually that it was a long time before he realised what it was. The flow of the river was beginning to quicken, too, and he began to have increasing difficulty keeping the boat under control. The sky overhead was a sullen red as though it was on fire.
And still the book lay silent against his stomach, where he had left it after escaping from the woman.
The black leafless trees crowded ever more thickly along the banks, so that he could not see past them on either side. The river had narrowed, too, the sides pressing in closely, so that instead of a wide slow flow he was rushing between steep banks, the boat rocking in the growing turbulence.
He dug his paddle into the flow, trying hard to move to the side, but the current was too strong, and the boat simply swung round and round.
Then the boat ran aground.
It happened so suddenly that he almost pitched forward and out. The river rushed past, but the boat was snagged on something in the flow, something which had snagged the hull and kept it from breaking loose. Peering over the edge, he saw branches. The boat was snagged on a fallen tree.
While he was still trying to work out how to make his way up it to land, a branch whipped out of the river and wrapped itself around him, holding him like a hand. It lifted, pulling him into the air.
Trapped in its grasp, he was carried to the shore.
There was a voice in his brain. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
“Wake up,” it was saying. “Wake up.”
Had he been asleep? He didn’t know. His entire body ached, with a pain that went down to the bone.
“Open your eyes.” The thoughts were like iron nails being hammered into his skull.
Reluctantly, he did. He was lying on his back, looking up at the trees. Some of the branches were still twined around his limbs.
“Get up,” the thought insisted.
He struggled to sit up. The trees crowded in a circle, close on him on all sides, and bent low, their branches interlocking. Hairy things scuttled among them, looking down at him with glowing eyes. He thought the trees were watching him through those eyes.
“What are you?” the thought rasped. “Why do you come here?”
“Seeking answers,” he said aloud. He was surprised at the calmness of his own voice. “I came seeking answers about what is going on here.”
A ripple as of amusement ran through the branches. “Answers? And what will you do if you find these...answers?”
“Put a stop to whatever it is that is causing all this.” He lifted a hand as much as he could against the restricting branches, and indicated the red sky and the river of blood somewhere behind him. “That is what I want.”
“And what about us?” the thought came. “If you put a stop to all this, what happens to us?”
He did not say anything. The question did not need an answer.
“Kill him,” another thought hammered. “Kill him and finish it.”
“Yes, kill him,” the thoughts crowded on each other. “Kill him, kill him, kill him.” And the creatures in the branches scrambled lower, their eyes glowing. The branches began to tighten around his limbs, his torso, his neck, biting right through the chain mail. But he was barely aware of it.
He was barely aware of it, because something else was happening. A growing warmth against his chest, below the armour, warmth increasing to heat, and heat increasing to blazing incandescent agony...
And then suddenly the demon was inside him. He could feel her inside his skin, looking through his eyes. She raised his arms, flexed his legs, and threw his head back in a primal scream.
The branches whipped away as though they could not let him go fast enough. The demon flung him to his feet, and opened his mouth.
Words poured out. He could not understand the language, he could not even understand how the syllables could be produced by a human throat. But they came, faster and faster, each phrase falling over the one before.
The trees fell away before him. She moved his legs, and he walked through the forest, the branches retreating as he came. The tiny creatures fled, squeaking.
Then he came to a clearing, and there was something squatting there.
At first he thought it was a rock. Then he thought it was an ancient idol. And then he realised it was a tree stump, though one which moved spasmodically and tried to rip itself out of the ground at his approach.
“Kill,” the demon said to him. “Kill.”
His hand reached for the sword as his mind sank back into the darkness.
When he regained consciousness, she was bending anxiously over him, his head cradled against her breasts. “Man?”
“I’m all right,” he whispered. He did not feel all right. He felt terrible. But then he looked up at her, and he felt better.
“I had to take a great risk,” she said. “I didn’t want to do it. But I had no alternative. If I’d waited even a moment later they would have destroyed you.”
“What happened?” he asked. He turned his head, gingerly, to look past her. He couldn’t see anything. Then he realised that he couldn’t see anything because it was dark. And it was dark because it was...
“Night,” he said, foolishly.
“Yes, it’s night,” she said. “It’s night, and the thing is over. We won.”
“The book?” he asked.
“It burned to ashes. Never mind, it helped us when we needed it.”
“It’s still here, but it’s a real forest again. Whatever it was in the stump is gone.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what it was, but it was old and twisted, and it was so filled with hate that everything – literally – was its enemy. I think it had been hurt very deeply in the past, and that we out it out of its misery.”
He climbed wearily to his feet. “Now what do we do?” he asked.
She wrapped an arm around his shoulder to support him. “We’ll find our way out of this forest,” she said. “After that, we’ll see.”
Dawn had just touched the sky when they found their way out of the forest, the knight still leaning on the demon. And then they stopped dead.
“Well,” he said. “Look at that.”
“Yes,” the demon agreed. “Not what I expected, I must say.”
The beast stood there, as though it had been waiting where they’d left it, just for a moment. It glanced at them, and then looked away, with the same air of unconcern.
“It must have followed us,” the knight said. “All this time, it must have been following, down the river, all the way.”
“You realise what this means,” the demon said, as she helped him on to the beast’s back. “It has feelings, too, though it doesn’t show them.”
“I wondered, sometimes, if it did,” he said. He stroked the beast’s head, between the horns. “I’m very glad to see you,” he told it.
The demon swung up on the beast’s back, behind the knight. “You know something, Man?” she asked.
“If something had happened to you, if I’d been too late to save you, I’d have...”
“Forget it,” she said, wrapping her arms round him and leaning her head on his shoulder. “There’s no point in talking about it now.”
The morning grew bright in the blue sky as the beast plodded across the plain.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014