Crackling of the Woods

The nobleman squirmed with anticipation beneath her touch. Foolish of him to drug her in the most popular tavern in the township. It had mostly dissolved by the time she’d picked up her mug, but she could still taste it. The bitter Spinfoil powder was a well-known paralytic, and he’d placed some in her mead. Being the daughter of the town doctor made her well acquainted with the various herbs that grew outside the forest wall.

“Eighteen minutes.”

“You’ve surely had enough of this place?” The man’s heavy, drunken breath warmed her neck as she whispered into his ear, in his state he could only summon a single nod in reply. “You must show me your home, then.”

She slipped a gloved hand down to his and flashed him a coy grin. The nobleman mumbled something through the cloud of liquor around his head as she all but dragged him away from the bar. Inside her stomach, the weed ignited. Spinfoil was a common drug used in the medical field, it was by no means difficult to obtain but the amount needed to do what her hopeful beau had planned would have been.

“Likely an understudy for a doctor.” She thought to herself as the tingling sensation spread through her torso. the man dressed in fine silks, decorated embroidery common in Southern Fashion. Golden thread stitched together his blue overcoat, which he’d earlier drenched in mead. He hung over her shoulder and walked in step with her as the tingle became a burn that spread through her abdomen. She recounted the last time someone had mixed her drink with Spinfoil powder, it took eighteen minutes to progress from gentle stomach pains to outright unconsciousness.

The man, who she could hardly consider a man, stumbled behind her and slurred compliments through clumsy lips. His boots popped against the ground, splashing against the fresh rainwater that had run into the cracked gutters. The tavern was alight with patrons, dancing and singing and enjoying their evening unaware that this boy, brother to the understudy of the town doctor, intended on drugging the only daughter of his brother’s teacher.

She dragged him through the densely packed streets, off of the roadway, and into a nearby alley.The drunken mess pulled against her as she veered off of the main roads. A sharp pain emerged in the hand that gripped his soaking coat.

“Not now.”

“My home is this way.” He waved his hand in the opposite direction.

“Then lead me.”

She corrected her path and doubled back as he led her to the main street. The couple stepped down onto the cobblestone roads just as a carriage passed.

“Across the thoroughfare.” Spittle flicked from his lips. He pointed down a side road with a wobbly hand. “Prims.”

With a tight grip around him as she continued, she letting the walkway lead her to his destination. In his drunkenness, he could barely get out the words but she knew where he was pointing. Brimshire Mansion, a likely place to find thoughtless monsters like himself. She nodded past others on the street as she took her date towards the direction he’d pointed. With each step, he grew heavier over her shoulder. She hoisted his arm around her as his legs began to misstep, knocking her off balance as they met the crossroad which led to the Mansion. Two guards nodded to her as she dragged her date over the slick stone path. She recognized that they’d likely never seen a woman of her stature hoist a man so much larger than herself, but they made no motion to help her.
The walk was much longer than necessary, but the slob she’d chosen for the evening had not made their journey any easier. As they continued down the long pathway, the burn in her torso spread to her arms.

“Twelve more minutes.” She mumbled.

“What?” He raised his head. She pushed it back down.

Two more had passed before she arrived at the doorstep of Brimshire Manor, the home to the baron of the Sixth Din of Nine, currently occupied by an uninvited guest from the Second Din. The Brimshire family hadn’t occupied the space in a decade, nearly two. As she reached the door, her stomach grew numb, the pain slowly grew sharp as she knocked. She’d not seen the new lord who had taken over the estate ever, only heard of him from second-hand accounts. Supposedly he’d sired seventeen children over his time ruling the Southern Quadrant of Dinriel. Among them, many grew to own property in the South. The House Lord himself was rarely seen, those who had claimed that he’d fallen ill in his old age, the Crackling of the Forest, it was called.

She’d hated the stories that seemed to propel themselves all over the town. When she was young they were rampant, festering rumors that hung about like the fog in the early morning. Fables of something within the forest beyond the city walls that heralded an age-old curse, that it fell randomly upon men and women in their old age, or, for those unlucky enough to wander into the forest… they’d remain there forever, trapped by the beasts within. Rumors spiraled across the city about the effects of the curse, blackened blood, warped bodies. Death. the rumors were founded in reality, however incorrect they might have been. Regardless, those who were born in Dinriel never left, trapped by the fear of the outside. The ruling families remained until they were dethroned by their rivals or the poor. Whoever became fed up first. Lord Vinth Jakad of the Second Din was no different.

She angled her shoulders as she came to a stop, and spilled the foolhardy nobleman from around her to the floor as she kicked at the door. Moments later, a young man with long hair tied back in a flat ponytail answered. He wore Servants Golds, another trademark of the Southern Din. Their servants were treated well. They were given gold uniforms with sparkling silver thread, they were even paid. Something her mother had never seen so far north.

“You’ve left this in the tavern.” She gestured to the steps as her date pawed at them, repressing vomit. “I believe you should check his pockets, as well. He laced my drink with Spinfoil.”

The servant’s eyes widened. “My dear, I do apologize for the folly of the young Master.” He looked down towards the man, who struggled to stand beneath them. “I do hope that you aren’t of offense.”

She rolled her eyes and tucked her hands into her trouser pockets. “I do think that I am.” She mimicked his tone of voice. Of course. Southern Din, especially those from Lord Jakad’s township spoke with a haughty accent.

The servant rolled his sleeves back and took a step towards her with his hand extended. “Please, if I may. Lord Jakad would halt my pay if I did not verify your claims.”

She pulled her hair away from her forehead and felt the heat from her skin.

“Six minutes.”

The servant pressed the back of his hand against her and nodded solemnly. “Please, come in. I will leave the young ward outside for the evening. Let us tend to you.”

He broke the stoic role he’d been portraying to flash her a quick smile before he stepped back and invited her in. She obliged. It was either that or try to make it across the Din in five minutes. She cursed as she took the seat offered by the servant who quickly afterward vanished into another room. The large comfortable chair enveloped her as she heard the sounds of clinking glassware from the next room, as the onset of Spinfoil reached her vision. Her sight grew foggy, her mind grey. She closed her eyes.

“No worse than before.” She muttered to herself as the servant returned.

“Please, miss.” He offered her a small glass vial filled with a bright orange mixture. “Take this. You will feel rejuvenated immediately.”

It smelled like alcohol.

“What’s in it?” She eyed the man on the steps, who had fallen asleep. He’d begun snoring loudly.

“Primarily Nightfrond, for its pain-relieving properties. Other than that, I added Goldmane for you to counteract the Spinfoil and combined the mixture with one of Lord Jakad’s finer wines. I apologize for the unpleasant coloring. If I had more time I would have prepared you something more appropriate to look at.”

She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “Might as well.” She thought to herself. “If I die from this, It’ll be better than Spinfoil poisoning.” She knocked the vial back and the bitter wine crashed against her tongue. The servant took the vial back from her as she swallowed the bitter mixture.

“By my estimation, you had three minutes before the Spinfoil would have incapacitated you, I hope that I acted quickly enough, miss.” He knelt beside her and put a hand to her forehead. The fog in her vision immediately began to recede. “You are Lord Ricard’s daughter, no?” The servant did not remove his hand.

She nodded. “Lady Lirenna Ricard herself.” She reclined away from his hand and closed her eyes.

She rested her hand on her lap, careful to keep it away from his body.

“I do apologize for Master Enri’s behavior this evening, he will be duly punished by Lord Jakad after sunrise.”

The servant stood and stepped away from her, then paused for her response.

The pain in her torso began to recede almost immediately.

“I do understand that Lord Ricard is a doctor?”

“The only other one in town.” She coughed. The bitter taste had not left her throat. She carefully crossed her arms and rested her pained hand on top of her arm. “Besides Jakad’s eldest.”

“Master Chillo, yes. He admires your father.”

He watched her carefully, unblinking. His silver eyes bored into her.

“I’m sure most he saves admire him to some degree.” She stood. “Thank you, earnestly. I will have my father send a more proper token of appreciation tomorrow.”

The servant paused, dropping his professional demeanor. “There is no need, mistress. It was my duty, but likewise, it was my pleasure.”

A chill ran over her skin.

“A draft.” She thought and turned towards the door.

“Please, if you could stay a moment. I am sure that Lord Jakad would like to personally apologize to you.

She felt a stinging pain in her hand once more. Familiar, unsafe. “I should be going.”

“No, I think not. Lord Jakad would like a word regarding your Mark.”

She froze. “What are you talking about?”

“Your hand, mistress. You’ve been nursing it since you entered the manor. He has been doing research. He would indeed appreciate your input.”

She pulled her hand close to her chest and hid it within her cloak. “I don’t think that necessary.”

The servant smiled once more. “I do.”

She shivered. “This isn’t the time.” She spoke to herself. “Should have kept a closer eye on myself.”

“Lord Jakad is interested in those who have been marked. ” The servant paused. “Perhaps, you could entertain him for a moment. He will want to speak with you privately. Please, I will send for him.”

She shook her head and took another step.

“Mistress.” A sharp metallic sound rang through the entrance hall and she stopped. “I am no longer going to ask you.”

She turned, the stinging atop her hand evolved to visceral pain. She clenched her fist. The servant stood with a knife pointed at her.

“If I really am marked, you wouldn’t be able to stop me with a short blade like that.” She lowered her hand, her fist remained tight.

“I know that if you use it, you won’t be able to fight for long. The Mark causes great pain I understand. I’d much rather neither of us gets hurt. You are the first Marked One I have had the chance to bring to Lord Jakad, do not make me force you.”

“Aren’t you already?” The Mark burned against her hand.

“I suppose so, yes.” He sheathed the knife and quickly turned away from her. “Do not move, I will return.”

She took a step back as Enri Jakad jerked awake.

“Come up with…” His slurred words devolved into gibberish as he rolled over and continued snoring. She took a step away from him, toward the side of the door.

The servant had not lied when he said he would return quickly, as barely a minute passed before he emerged from another hallway to the sound of creaking wood that echoed behind him. “Lord Jakad is pleased you’ve decided to meet with him.” He smiled, each time his white teeth shined from behind his lips. Her skin prickled at the sight of such vanity.

“Every second you’re here, you are in more and more danger.” She reminded herself before she stepped back against a tall stained glass window beside the front door.
Across the room, from a hallway, she couldn’t see into a man rolled into the room on a rickety wooden wheelchair, pushed by another servant in golds. The old man’s body was warped and crumpled in the seat, his skeleton jagged and broken, the bones jutted out in an incomprehensible shape. His legs were the same, twisted and rotated against the natural alignment. His shins slanted away from him. His spine bent at a sharp angle and set him forward in his chair as if he were about to fall.

“Lady Ricard,” He began, his voice creaking through a misaligned jaw. The accent of the Southern Din warped by the misalignment. “I am Lord Jakad, and as my servant explained to me, you have remained here to answer my questions about your Mark even after encountering my son Enri in a… less than favorable situation.”

She scoffed at the crippled Lord. “Less than favorable? Your son tried to drug me, Jakad.”
The old man chuckled to himself before he answered. The attendant stepped away from the lord and pulled his coat to the side to reveal a long blade buckled to his belt. She noted his steady gaze as she waited for the lord to speak.

“You Northern Din are not patient with your tongues, are you?” He shook his head. “No, no, I understand Master Enri crossed a line this evening. I will be sure to deal with it in the morning. I give you my word. I will send a more formal apology after the morning comes. I assure you.” He leaned back into his chair as much as his crooked spine would let him and eyed her. “So, Mistress Lirenna… You have a Mark. Have you used it?” He put a contorted hand to his jaw and stared.
The lord’s eyes seemed to look past her, or, through her, as he waited.

“No, I don’t believe in them.”

The Lord laughed out loud. “You don’t believe in what you suffer through each day?”

She remained still, and watched him carefully, keeping one eye on the servant who had commanded her to stay. “If I never use it, I will never need to experience the consequences, as it seems you have.”

The servants looked toward their master quickly before they returned their gaze to her. She bit her tongue.

“You are correct. You know, I was once a general for the Southern Din. I conquered the land that makes up the Jakad Township, I’m sure you would have guessed.” He adjusted in his seat, the wood creaked with each motion. “But after I’d become a Lord I wanted to discover a way out of the forest. Don’t you wish to escape?”

“I have what I need here.” The pain from the Mark only grew greater as she spoke, a bead of sweat ran down her neck.

“I’m sure you do, you are the daughter of a well mannered and accomplished doctor, and yet, you were Marked. You know the stories, so tell me, mistress, when did you go into the forest? Did you meet the horrors that live there?”

The bead of sweat dripped from her shoulder blades and she fought the urge to shiver. “I’ve never been.”

“I know that is not true,” Jakad replied. He gestured towards his undershirt and his servant reached down to unbutton it. He hooked a crooked finger around the cloth and pulled it aside to reveal a small red mark imprinted on his skin. It was unlike any she’d seen before.

“I’ve been to the forest many times, dear. I was once a Saint Blade. Long ago. Now… I have become this. I still hear the whispers at night, do you?”

Her hand ached, it burned, it screamed with pain as Jakad spoke of things that should not be.

“I have never heard such things.”

She lied.

“I suppose it comes only with the use of the Mark, so mistress… what would it take to get you to show me?”

“Show you?” She furrowed her brow and took a step towards the door.

“Yes, nothing complicated of course, I know how specific they are but… you are the daughter of an accomplished doctor. You would know better than the rest of us how to return to normal, no?”
She took another step backward. The servant who had healed her approached.

“I don’t think I’ll be showing you anything, this evening.”

She backpedaled over Enri’s body and down the steps of the manor as the servant continued toward her. Lord Jakad appeared in the doorway a moment later, pushed by the second servant.

“Lirenna, you do know that I can find you whenever I’d like. You can show me now or… you can show me tomorrow. I don’t have much else to do besides sit in this chair and be read to, but you can help both of us.”

She shook her head and the servant drew his dagger. The pain in her hand flared. It burst up through her arm, past her shoulder, and reached the base of her skull. She shouted and winced. A delay long enough for the servant to reach her. He slashed outward with the knife towards her stomach as Jakad observed from the porch. She fell back and the servant jumped at her. She rolled onto her Marked hand as the knife slammed into the stone beside her. He growled. She shoved herself from the ground and leaped away from him. He caught the sole of her boot, barely, and pulled. His unexpected strength dragged her back to the ground as he swiped at her, slicing into the flesh of her arm. She shouted, but no one turned to her.

Another burst of firey pain ripped through her, into her skull. She rolled onto her back and kicked at the man, his silver eyes glowed in the moonlight. Her boot connected with his jaw in a satisfying pop. His grip fell away from her other leg and she scrambled to stand.

“Don’t come any closer.” She whispered at the servant. He stood and gripped the knife.

Then it came like it always had. Somewhere deep within her, as if she’d just woken from a dream a voice spoke to her. Words that had been mashed together, confusing syllables, and sounds that she didn’t understand. She’d kept the voice out for so long. After she gave in the first time she knew she couldn’t use it again. She shook her head. Pain tore through her arm and pulsed with her heartbeat. Lord Jakad waved his servant to wheel him closer, and he obeyed.
She grunted, reaching down to retrieve her knife. “I promise you, you don’t want to understand whatever this is. It will be better if you don’t.”

The servant let a half chuckle fall from his lips. “I don’t care, my master does.”

He swiped towards her chest, she dove to her right to dodge and the servant whipped around with a second strike, his elbow slammed into her rib. She coughed and swung the knife up. It wedged into his arm. He didn’t flinch, only pulled away to dislodge it. He took another swing toward her. She jumped back and dodged the strike by mere inches as she ducked and drove her own up into his armpit from beneath him. He twisted and the knife missed as it sliced through the skin of the man’s back. He slammed his elbow down onto her shoulder a second time and dropped her to her knees. The sudden impact knocked the wind from her lungs. She hit the ground with a hard thud and her Mark only grew more painful, the voice inside of her more impatient as it began shouting.
She closed her eyes for the briefest of seconds and tightened her grip on the knife.

“I will not,” She swung up, across his chest. “Give in.” The steel tip sliced through the gold fabric as it fell to ribbons. A red stream of blood decorated the white shirt beneath. “I will not.” She repeated and twisted the knife in her hand. “Let it take me.” She dragged the knife down across the servant’s face and felt it rip into his cheek. He howled out at the strike and stumbled backward.

“I could have killed your son tonight for drugging me. The Ardent Council would have let it go. That I was within my rights.” She shouted across the manor garden towards the crippled man, a wide smile draped across his toothless face. “I chose to spare you the trouble of organizing a funeral.”
Jakad clapped as his attendant stopped him a few feet away from the bloodied servant on his knees before her.

“Mistress, I would not have cared if Enri had died in his mother’s womb, he is a burden to me. You would have done me a favor. Yet you wish to keep this a secret?” He gestured toward the servant, who held the flesh of his cheek together before her. “You are a capable fighter, I didn’t expect this. Not from Lord Ricard’s daughter.”

She wiped the servant’s blood from her knife onto his back and took a step toward Jakad. “You never met my mother.” She spit blood to her side.

The voice inside grew louder, angrier. It still spoke words that had mashed together and twisted around themselves, but it was all she could think about. The sensation of the Mark spread through her body.

“Don’t come after me. Don’t send your apology.” She sheathed the knife and took a careful step towards the Lord. The servant put his hand on his blade. The voice screamed.

“Or what will you do, child?”

“These Marks are evil, Jakad. You know they are. Look what they did to you. You embraced the spirit of the Forest, you allowed yourself to fall to corruption.” A weight had steadily grown un her chest as the Mark begged to be released. Her breath weighed down.

“These Marks are power, and the Ardent Council refuses to embrace them.” Jakad rolled his eyes.

“I am no member of the Council.” She spat a second time. “I am not a tool for you to use.”
Jakad scoffed at her. “Everyone has their price, darling.” He winced as the mark on his chest began to glow.

The voice inside her erupted with emotion as Jakad’s Mark illuminated in the night. A sick red light burst forth from him as he howled. His attendant stepped back and as quickly as it had come, the glow of the mark dissipated. Jakad’s eyes glowed wholly red as his bones stretched from within his body, piercing his skin as they jammed into the ground and they twisted and warped, suddenly malleable. He lifted himself from the chair as the empty skin of his legs and arms hung limp, his bones stretched and contorted, lumped together as if they were clay that could be reshaped and moved. He took a feeble step towards her. Her Mark burned powerfully enough that it seared her whole body. Jakad took another slow step and retracted the bones from behind him as he became little more than a torso suspended in the night by spider-like legs, his chest burst open and his ribcage opened like a vicious maw as he descended upon her.

She jumped back and screamed as loudly as she could. The sheath of her knife pressed against her thigh as she tore it out and swung it towards Jakad. The blade bounced from the bone as the monstrosity landed on her and pinned her to the dirt of the garden. She craned her neck back to see a handful of civilians who’d stopped at the gate entrance as the lord reached out with his ribs, made out to be a gaping maw of gnashing fangs. The exposed entrails within him spilled out onto her as he wailed in the night. He chomped down towards her and caught the blade of her knife. He ripped it from her hands and howled with laughter.

“Not like this.” She whispered to herself. “Not like my mother.” She closed her eyes and grabbed a rib with her hands, then pulled as hard as she could.

She felt the thin bone in the grip of her fist, barely thicker than the blade of her knife. “He sacrificed a lot of mass to give himself greater length. He can barely control it.” She pushed against the bone as hard as she could, then rolled onto her shoulders quickly and drove her feet into Jakad’s limp crotch. With all of her might, she pushed, with the bone in her hands. Jakad fought her strength and wrapped what spindly limbs he could around her body to trap her.

The voice screamed to be set free as she pushed against the Lord with her legs. The pressure between them bore down on the bone and she felt it give. He fought to entrap her with his thin legs and brittle teeth but failed as she wedged her elbow between his makeshift jaws. With a great shove, the bone in her hands popped as the crack widened. Then, she pushed as hard as she could, feeding into the Mark as the bones in her arm began to warp beneath her skin, yearning to emerge. The voice within her howled in delight. With a tremendous snap, Jakad launched away from her and rolled across the ground. A screech erupted from his mouth as the bones around his body retracted and absorbed back into him. They pulled his spilled insides along and hid within his body in a tangled, misaligned mess.

She shoved herself back and stood to meet the eyes of the servant who rushed to Jakad’s aid. She quickly plucked her knife from the grass.

“If I see you again, I’ll kill you.” She pointed the bone at the servant, who had dragged Jakad’s unconscious body back to the wheelchair. She sheathed the knife as she stepped out of the garden and began her long walk home. The onlookers kept their space as she passed and she pointed at them with her Marked hand, still pulsing with pain. “Listen to the Council. They’re keeping you safe from things like that.” Their faces flushed as she slipped the bone into her cloak and continued up the road.

The further she got from Brimshire Manor, the less painful the mark grew until she found herself on her doorstep a few hours before dawn and the pain had subsided completely. The voice had gone from her long before then as she stuck a key into her father’s home and unlocked the door. She passed through with a pleasant smile on her face despite the long night. She locked the door and kicked her boots off before she went to her bedroom and fell, exhausted, on her bed.

“So, Lord Jakad is Marked. Horribly so.” She spoke into the night. “I wonder if he expected a noblewoman to be marked.” She giggled and glanced out her window. “I suppose not. No one from the Southern Din sees what we see here in the North.”

Outside the window, the treeline grew lighter with the sunrise as she had seen thousands of times before, in the leaving darkness, she saw a figure as tall as the trees wrapped in tangled flesh and bone. On four legs it pushed from the depths of the woods with long horns and paused at the treeline as the sun broke above the horizon. Her mark began to burn.

“Mother? Are you coming home?”

There will be no end to the screaming.

Thank you, for coming to hear a new story from the Otherwhere. This is only the beginning. I hope to see you back over the next few days until the end of this year. These are not only retellings of a world long ago. They are a recorded history, a warning for all of us. I am merely the vessel they are speaking through. I hope you share these warnings with as many as you can. The time is not long now. Do not be afraid of the shadows.

I’d love to hear from you on Social Media if you have it, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed thus far. I’ll be back with more.

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3 Replies to “Crackling of the Woods”

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