It was drawing close to dawn when I pulled up to the Gypsy camp with Claudia. I could hear the sound of a waterfall in the distance, and see the murky river water on the far side of the camp. Their wagons were arranged in a half-circle around a small cluster of tents and open pit fires. A couple of the early morning watchmen stood up from their quiet vigil next to the fire and approached at the sound of my horse entering the small camp. From the corner of my eye, I could see a few others cautiously peek out from their wagons and tents.
“Who approaches our camp at this early hour?”
Claudia stirred in my lap and blinked the sleepiness from her eyes. She sat upright when she took note of the light of the campfire and the approaching figures.
I help ease Claudia down from my saddle into the arms of her uncle. He took her gingerly only taking a moment to glance at me.
“My dear niece, what happened to you?”
“She’s the only one to survive,” I said simply for her, “some local highwaymen made sport of her family and wagon from the looks of things.”
He nodded grimly and passed her off to someone else to carry. I watched as they took her to one of the larger tents to look after her.
“Thank you, stranger. I am Kashmir,” he said before indicating back towards the fire, “though we have little, I can offer a warm fire and food.”
“No, I don’t plan on intruding any longer,” I insisted and turned my horse to back up the road.
“I see, at least let us offer a change of clothes for our would-be heroine and a moment to rest.”
I paused to look down at myself. I was still covered in blood from my two previous victims and the brief skirmish. I cast a glance skyward towards the east hoping for an estimate of how much time I had left in the night. It was still dark over the entirety of the night sky, if I tarried too long however there was a chance I would be caught out in the sun.
“I really don’t want to impose,” I said as I turned back to look at him.
“It is I that insists on imposing,” said Kashmir as he took the reigns to my horse. I sighed internally and stepped down from the saddle.
“My wife Maricica can help you,” he indicated towards the fire, “I will take care of your horse, see to it she is fed, cleaned and restock your saddle.”
I nodded and made my way to the campfire. As I passed by I glanced into the tent they had taken Claudia. Very briefly I saw her leg was being tended to. One of the women inside spied me watching and shut the flap hurriedly. I wondered briefly if she was frightened by my ghastly appearance, or wanting to give Claudia some privacy. Either way, I continued towards the central campfire. Only a few of the gypsy folk were tending to it this early in the morning.
A tall stern-looking woman stood up at my approach and to face me. Like most other gypsy folks, I could see she was dressed in vibrant colors of orange and gold. She gave me a look over before speaking.
“You're the one that rescued Claudia?”
She nodded, “and I assume my husband sent you to me?”
“You would be correct in assuming so,” she pulled someone up from sitting next to the fire. “Daughter, find something for our guest to wear, and be quick about it! I will need you back here to finish breakfast before the other families awake.”
The young girl let out a groan before she took me by the hand to pull me off to one of the wagons that encircled the camp. I glanced back to see Maricica head over to the tent that Claudia was recovering within. Her daughter opened the back of the wagon and pulled me up the steps.
“You're in luck,” she said opening a large satchel that was tucked away, “you look to be about my size. Here try this on.”
“I’m sorry for the trouble,” I said as I took the garment. It looked to be a red skirt, with golden lace sewn into it.
“No trouble,” she said with a smile while handing me another garment, “I don’t have anything to wash your clothes with right now. So you can keep what I give you.”
“They’re probably stained anyway. Could probably just throw them into the fire.”
The girl shrugged, “Unfortunate. I am Dorina, by the way.”
She continued rummaging through a few other things that lay scattered about the wagon. I pulled up the skirt and tied it about my waist, as I didn't want to bother myself with having to remove my pants. My shirt was beyond hope, torn and stained as it was. I had worn it since the night I had reawoken owing to the fact I had little else to wear or possibly change into. Without a word I pulled it off and tossed aside.
There was a quiet sound of creaking wood and I glanced up to see a pair of eyes peeking underneath the wagon cover. I pulled up my hands out of reflects to cover my chest. Behind me, I could hear Dorina drop something on the floor of the wagon and start muttering angrily as stormed towards the opening. The eyes disappeared and I could hear the sound of someone running.
With an angry yell, Dorina ripped open the curtain, “Codrin! When I get my hands on you I’m beat your hide so hard!”
I quickly pulled on another shirt as Dorina turned back to me, “I hate boys. My ma says that's going to change when I get old,” she shook her head, “I don’t see it.”
“Most boys are perverted pigs, but I have seen some honest good men out there.”
Dorina smiled, “I would love to see these supposed ‘good’ men.”
“You will meet them. It just takes time sorting through the bad.”
The wagon flap opened again and Maricica stepped through.
“Finally dressed I see. Daughter, go fetch some wine for our guest.”
“I’m fine, you don’t have to,” I said. I wasn’t sure how well my body might take to drinking something that wasn’t blood. “You have done too much for me already, and I must be heading off.”
“Will you be staying for breakfast? I can easily see to some trail food for you.”
“No, I really must be going.”
“Very well, but I will have you know my grandmother desires to see you,” Maricica said as she stepped down from the wagon.
“Why?” I asked.
“You should know she has the sight, a rare gift among our people. I believe she wants to read your fate as a reward for your kindness, though she may have other reasons. I wouldn’t put it past her.”
“How long would that take? As it is imperative that I will be needing to leave soon.”
“It should not take long,” assured Maricica taking my hand, “Come I will take you to her.”
Reluctantly I let her pull me along. We skirted around the edge of the camp, occasionally greeting some of the early risers before dawn.
“How is Claudia?” I asked following after her.
“She is doing well, and if fate is kind she will no doubt recover. One of my husband’s brothers will watch over her till we can contact her mother.”
“Do not worry. We, Roma, are strong folk.”
She led me a little way past the edge of the camp to a tent that had been pitched under a grove of old trees. As we drew closer it suddenly felt like I was stepping over an unseen barrier. I wasn’t sure if it was a change in temperature or just an odd feeling that permeated the air but something felt off or different. Maricica opened the flap to the tent and invited me in.
Inside an old gnarled woman sat at a table, “Gwenyth about time you arrived. Please take a seat.”
“Maricica said you wanted to talk?,” I asked as I took a seat across from her.
The atmosphere within the tent was stuffy and filled with the overpowering smell of incense and drying herbs. Heavy drapes hung from the tent’s roof obscuring the interior with darkness and shadows. The only light came the small collection of candles set up on the table.
“Of course, the fates have foretold your arrival for some time, and I am eager to see what the future will unfold.”
I frowned, I could imagine how the effect of the vague shadows and darkness would have added to the illusion of the occult and mystic powers. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I might be wasting my time here.
“Forgive me for not offering a refreshment,” continued the old woman, “but I value my blood in my old age.”
Crackly laughter erupted from her as I felt my body go chill. I glanced back at Maricica to gauge her reaction. If she was surprised she didn’t show it. Looking back at the old woman, I wondered if she was possibly senial.
“I’m sorry but who are you? And how much do you know about me?”
The old woman smiled revealing that she was missing more than a few teeth, “I am Madam Ezma, though some may foolishly call me a charlatan, I assure you I am truly gifted to see the threads of fate. Perhaps if you and your companions had come to see me before confronting the Dark Lord’s power things may be different. Then again perhaps not, the threads of fate are never certain,” she reached under the table and pulled out an old worn deck of cards, “you desire to know where to find your friends. This I do not know.”
I opened my mouth to protest then closed it again as she raised a finger, “However, I can see what the card will reveal about their fates and yours. Do with this information as you will and you might have a chance to find them.”
She placed the deck on the table in front of me, “I shall start with you.”
Her hands shuffled the deck and then she drew three cards, “Three cards, one tieing you to the present and two to reveal the paths you may take.”
One by one she placed the cards before me on the table face down. Then she beckoned me to turn them over. I reached out a hand flipped the first one, it depicted a skeletal horseman. The woman crackled as I read the name of the card.
“Death! How fitting,” Madam Ezma placed a single finger on the card, “The life you once had has ended and a new one has begun. How you use this new life is the challenge you must confront.”
Her hand took mine and placed it on the next card. Almost hesitantly I turned it over to see it depicted a stained glass window with two ragged looking individuals shuffling through the snow beneath it.
“The Five of Pentacles” she released my hand to examine the card, “I can see you alone surrounded by darkness on all sides, isolated by your hunger and fear. Not an enviable place to be, though you might find it preferable if fate is not kind.”
“Fate already doesn’t seem kind,” I muttered.
“It seems that way, doesn’t it? Let's find out what the other path offers.”
I paused before turning over the last card, then asked a question that I wasn’t sure I would like the answer, “is there a chance to undo what has happened to me? To get rid of this curse.”
“That is not something I can reveal, because it is not known to me,” the old woman took my hand gently, “Truly I am sorry for the path you now walk. I once knew a nobleman vigilant and honest in his duties. He ran afoul of some dark demons and was cursed for his trouble. Yours is also an ancient and powerful curse, but who knows, perhaps threads of fate may show mercy.”
I nodded and turned over the card to see a woman sitting atop a throne with a sword in hand. As I lifted my hand from off the card, a sense of vertigo made the tent spin. Steadying myself against the table, I stared at the card before me. Under the flickering candlelight, the scene changed subtly on the card. The background became darker, and I could see myself sitting on the throne holding the sword aloft to unseen masses. Blood trailed down my lips, while my enemies groveled at my feet.
Shaken, I pulled back and fell into my chair. For a moment everything was dark and hazy. I blinked and realized the Madam Ezma was staring at me.
“The cards have revealed your fate to you,” she said quietly.
“What was that?” I asked sitting back up.
Madam Ezma shrugged, “A possible path that lays before you.”
She picked up the card to study it herself, “The Queen of Swords, whatever has been revealed I can not see.”
Still shaken by the cryptic vision, I glanced away from the table. I didn’t like what I saw in that vision. It was like I had replaced the Dark Lord as some queen of evil. Whatever it was I saw in that vision, it was something I did not want to become. I bit my lip, was I doomed to become that? To reveal in the powers of darkness and wantonly consume the blood of my enemies?
“Do not worry, my child. The cards only reveal what is possible not what is certain,” I turned to look back at Madam Ezma, as she picked up the three cards, “Come let us see what we can uncover about your companions.”
She placed three more cards down on the table and turned them over one by one.
“The Ten of Swords, the first has been consumed by defeat and disgrace. The High Priestess, one has given in charity. The Four of Swords, another has retreated into solitude. The Four of Pentacles, finally one has been consumed by greed.”
Eyes closed, Madam Ezma spread her hands on the table, “Each of your companions travels alone, but I foresee a time when they shall reunite either to prevail against you or suffer by your hand.”
“What do you mean to prevail or suffer by my hand,” I asked confused. Madam Ezma opened her eyes, “hard to say for certain.”
“But it doesn’t make sense! I would never betray or hurt my friends!”
“I could say what the threads of fate have revealed,” she stood up and gestured to Maricica.
“You said the cards only reveal what is possible, correct?”
“Yes, child and fate can be very fickle as well. Maybe another path opens or none at all. Perhaps you and your companions shall never meet again.”
I turned as I stood up from the table and brushed aside Maricica’s hand as I left the tent. I was disappointed in coming to see this Madam Ezma and found it a complete waste of my time. Her crypt warnings and vague predictions offered nothing substantial in helping me. No matter her words, I still wanted to know at least what happened to them, and to make sure they were okay.
Ignoring everything else, I made straight towards the horses. Kashmir offered a warm smile as I approached. Despite my reserved feelings of annoyance I felt at the moment, I returned his smile, though it might have come out more like a grimace. He offered me a hand in mounting my horse and I climbed atop her.
“I packed some supplies for your journey,” said Kashmir as he patted the horses flank, “tell me what is her name?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly, “I acquired her unexpectedly.”
“A strong beauty like her should not go unnamed.”
“Would you do me the honors?” I said as half-mindedly as I looked over everything on my saddle. I still had the crossbow and a few bolts, Kashmir indeed had some food it seemed tied down though I didn’t have the mind to reject it at the moment as I was in a hurry to leave. I did notice a new sword was added as well. I placed a hand on the sword and gave him a quizzical look.
“Should you stumble across any further trouble on your journey,” suggested Kashmir, “It would be unfortunate if our humble rescuer would need rescuing of her own. As for your horse, I believe I would call her Lady. Simple, elegant with a hint of regality.”
“Thank you,” I said again and kick the horse into a trot. As soon as I hit the road, I egged her on into a gallop.
The sun was threatening rise over the mountains as my horse and I thundered across the drawbridge. The morning mist offered the smallest of protection as I raced around the back of the castle to the stables. I didn’t bother to pull the hay out, only working quickly to secure the doors and hurry to the small servant entrance.
Once I had the door shut behind me inside the castle proper, I released a sigh of relief and slumped to the ground. Not the night I had planned at all and with nothing to show for it. The only thing I had accomplished was a grisly reminder of my need to control my hunger. Followed by a cryptic warning about my friends.
All things considered, it was a long night. My undead body felt no fatigue but my mind and soul felt exhausted. Getting my feet back underneath me, I stood up. Sunlight will be creeping into the chapel of the castle and if I didn't hurry, it was going to cut me off from entering the catacombs.
Dust and cobwebs still clung to everything. I thought it odd when my companions and I had initially invaded the first time to find many places of the castle deserted or in disrepair. I guess when you had armies of undead soldiers and monsters you didn't have to worry about appearances. Personally, I found it irresponsible, I would like to imagine that if I laid claim to a castle I would try to maintain some sort of pride in how it looked.
I paused briefly in the hall outside the chapel. Do I have an actual claim over this castle? I reached out and touched the stone wall next to me. Maybe it was hypocritical of me to think poorly of the Dark Lord since I now walked these halls and have done nothing to help restore it. Not surprising however when I consider the fact I have neither servant nor followers to keep up the castle.
The chapel looked forlorn and desolate as the morning glimmered through the bordered and broken windows, I kept close the shadows and descended the large stairwell into the lower depths of the castle. It was when I neared the bottom that I stopped.
Something was off. It took a moment before I could narrow down what had put me on edge. There was something else down here. Someone alive. I could hear the faint beat of their heart and their feet shuffling over the stone floor.
Quietly I hunched down low and crept carefully through the shadows. Ahead I could see someone was moving about through the darkness of the catacomb with a dim torch held aloft, its embers slowly dying. I peeked out from the corner to see a hunched over figure in a dark cloak examining one of the tombs. I pulled out my new sword and moved slowly closer.
“Make no sudden moves and I may let you live,” I said darkly from behind. The hunched figure froze.
“I don’t mean any harm,” it spoke. His voice sounded young and frightened.
“Good,” I said, “I prefer not having to kill unnecessarily. Now drop any weapons on the ground in front of you.”
The figure started slowly turning and I hissed, “I didn’t say you can turn around, yet! I told you to drop all your weapons!”
“I don’t have any!”
“Then slow turn with your hands where I can see them, and if you make any sudden moves, I will not hesitate to kill you.”
He raised his hands before turning slowly still holding aloft the torch. I kept my sword trained on him. Once I could see him more clearly, I realized he was a young scraggly looking man wearing a dark cloak that looked several sizes too large for him.
“What's your name?”
“Timothy and I should warn you, I’m-. Well, I was apprenticed to a powerful wizard!”
I raised an eyebrow at that statement. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to bluff, or not. Certainly, if he was magically endowed it would make me holding him at sword point moot. That being said he hasn’t done anything overtly arcane either.
“If you're going for intimidation I would stick with just saying you know magic.”
“Well I don’t!” he scrunched up his face, “I mean I do! Yes! I know loads of magic, so you should tremble before I kill you with but a word!”
I let out a bark of laughter.
“Don’t laugh I can do it!”
“Then I will remember to cut out your tongue first.”
His eyes went wide and he shut his mouth. After a moment I sheathed my sword again.
“Tell me, Timothy, what are you doing down here?”
“What about you? What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” I replied simply, then as an afterthought I added, “and I killed the last person I caught trespassing through. So be warned, I might do it again.”
I didn’t want to add that the person I killed within the castle was unintentional and due to my hunger. Which if I wasn’t careful, I may end up killing Timothy out of bloodlust.
“I see,” muttered Timothy. I couldn’t tell if my implied threat intimidated him, but he made a weird awkward attempt at a bow, “my apologies then. I was under the impression that no one has claimed the castle. I shall return and report to my master at once.”
“A master that your no longer an apprentice to?”
“Yes! I mean, no!”
“Yes or no you don’t have a master?”
“Neither?” he made it sound like a question, “Look I was just looting the place. Looking for something the Dark Lord left, okay? Same as you no doubt.”
“I honestly have no intention of keeping anything of the Dark Lord.”
His face scrunched in confusion.
“However, I also have no intention of letting others use his powers either,” I continued. His face fell at the statement before turning into a fury.
“By the Gods, why the hell would you do that!”
“I have my reasons,” I replied simply, “Now I believe it's time for you to go.”