Have you ever heard of the “Rhyme of the Dark Rider?” It’s a lullaby recited by parents within the region of Victor’s Reign to scare their children into being good. Otherwise, Acanthus Asphodel would appear on his horse and take them away. Recently, high ranking officials within the Holy City of Haydenbough have begun to go missing and hushed whispers have spoken of sightings of a man in black armor, believed similar to that worn by the Dark Rider.
To remain standing, the city will need to come to terms with its own dark secrets, or forever be lost in the blackest night.
“Ugh. You could almost convince me that this is tea.”
The man complained as his age-worn voice was accompanied by a frown of a pair of his thin lips that further expressed his dissatisfaction. The green liquid sloshed around in his ivory cup as the carriage rocked side to side against the uneven stones of the gravel highway.
“I thought I asked for mint and lemon. What the hell is this piss?”
“Not sure, Minister Brennan,” one of the guards said from the front of the carriage.
“Disgraceful. I don’t understand the difficulty in having what I want ready for me.” He lifted the cup to his lips only to be interrupted by the jarring sway of the carriage. “If I am to drink this swill, stop hitting every damn rock in the road.”
“Apologies, m’lord. It’s quite dark and-” one of the two guards said from atop his horse.
“Use the damned moonlight. It’s bright enough,” Brennan barked.
There were more words that followed but they were only meant for the other man next to him to hear. “If he hates it so much, why won’t he just pour it out…?”
“What was that?” The Minister made his question a threat.
“He was asking if you enjoyed your journey,” the other guard said.
“Right. It was work. Nothing more.” He took another sip of the hot tea that piped in his hands and his lips curled tightly in disgust.
“What does a Minister of Foreign Affairs do, anyway?”
“Do guards usually talk this much?”
“Just conversation, m’lord. It’s a bit of a ways back to Haydenbough.”
Brennan sighed in aggravation. These were new men. Young men that had yet to learn their place by never speaking to the upper members of The Holy Applause. Yet, the Minister found himself flattered that they wished to engage in a conversation with him. Self-gratification swelled within the home that it had made in his chest. “Haydenbough is the most powerful nation in Victor’s Reign. Across the Starless Sea, however, our allies stand almost as tall as we do.”
He smirked. “Almost.”
Minister Brennan loved to explain his role within Haydenbough’s leadership. It both satisfied his ego and gave him the chance to listen to himself speak. “If Haydenbough falls, they won’t be too far behind. My job is to make sure that the other nations understand our relationship with them. Or, more rather, make sure that they know where the power is held. The Holy Applause has successfully created an environment where many of these nations recognize our value, and depend on us. My aim is to nurture this dependence.”
“What does Haydenbough provide to the other nations?”
“We allow others to see another day on God’s green earth.” It was a definite response.
“That’s…ominous,” a guard replied.
“That’s business.” Brennan yawned. “Wake me once we reach Haydenbough’s gates. And keep the bumps to a minimum.”
The carriage moved through the night beneath the moon’s gleam. Once it had reached its zenith, the entire land was washed in its dreamy, pale blue glow that brushed across the frozen rolling hills in a wave of luminescence.
One by one, the stars erupted into view. What began as four, became a dozen. What had become a dozen became hundreds.
“Look at that,” one of the guards pointed upward.
“It’s a bright night. So clear,” said the other. “And quiet…”
He traced his eyes from the moon to a trail of stars that sailed down into the horizon.
As he did so, a figure of swirling blackness emerged from the edge of the world, and the stars, themselves, seemed to part like an obedient sea in its wake.
An abrupt bump in the road jolted Brennan awake. “What the hell?”
Despite Brennan’s complaints, the carriage didn’t slow. He looked out of the window and saw the rolling hills and dead trees, bare of any life, speed by in a blur.
He shouted, “Why are we going so fast?” There was no response with the exception of another heavy thud from underneath the carriage. Brennan barked louder, “HEY! Do you hear me? I thought I told you-”
He scrambled to the front where he could talk to the men directly.
Once Brennan had made it to the front of the carriage, he found them men atop their horses who ran wildly into the screaming nothing ahead.
The glow of the moon revealed a scene to Brennan that froze his heart in its cage. The guard on the left was missing his head. He then looked to his right to see the other guard. While the man wasn’t missing his head, he had still suffered a similar fate as the top of his head had been pulled all the way back which caused him to take on the appearance of a fleshy pitcher of red wine that spilled from its open top.
Brennan fell back onto his seat as the carriage’s wheels rocked against the earth.
He looked out of the window again and didn’t see the landscape.
He didn’t see rolling hills of ice, or the moon, or the sky.
What he did see, were a pair of white hot stars that glowered down at him. The longer he remained underneath the watch of the furious stars’ glares, the sooner he realized that these were not stars at all.
They were eyes; the eyes of a figure draped in all of the blackest nights that he had ever seen, and they had all become one.
A black claw shattered the window of the carriage and reached into what had become Brennan’s sanctuary, as well as his doom.
The jagged fingers of the armored hand scratched and reached for the man who had somehow flattened himself against the other side of the carriage.
The dagger-like fingers retreated, but reappeared moments later as the hand from hell tore through the roof as it tried again to claim Brennan, who, by now, had dropped to the floor of the carriage.
The claw grazed Brennan’s scalp, yet still managed to draw blood as it reached again and again.
Finally, the hand had departed once again.
Brennan watched in horror as the armored nightmare, perched atop a white horse whose size rivaled the carriage itself, reached for the long handle that sat as a devil over his shoulder. A moment later, the monster pulled an enormous black sword from the void and pointed it upward to the sky.
In Brennan’s next heartbeat, the top half of his carriage was split apart, its splinters scattered like dust in the wind as it was divided by the black bite of the weapon’s edge.
Here, underneath all of the celestial watchers that witnessed along with the sky that hosted them, the Minister saw the manifest of the deepest fear that smothers spirits’ light.
Two horns were perched atop the rider’s helm like a crown above what Brennan had mistaken as stars. Between them was a crimson red ponytail that violently flowed in the wind. His cape was a trail of fire that tore through the night.
“Who are you…? WHAT ARE YOU?!”
On this night, Haydenbough’s Minister of Foreign Affairs would receive deliverance.
But, not the likes of the spiritual voyage promised by the Heavenly Host.
While the City of Haydenbough slumbered, its gates stood as titanic sentinels.
Several guards kept watch out over the rolling fields that led up to the city, and all was well.
However, far in the distance, a spark appeared along the road as a fallen star and barreled toward where the guards, who had, by now, taken notice of it.
As it came closer, the silhouette of two men riding horses could be seen preceding the miniature sun behind them. Plumes of black smoke devoured the air and blotted out the blinding diamonds that were kept as the moon’s treasures.
Closer, yet closer it came, and the guards, confused and fearful, brandished their weapons and formed a plan of defense against a possible attack.
But, as the catastrophe arrived, the ability to keep their weapons ready fell away.
The men that were seen mounted on the horses, wore the armor of Haydenbough, and were not mounted by their own volition. They were placed there, bound by rope to keep their dismembered bodies in place.
The horses neighed and reared wildly in an attempt to free themselves from what followed behind them.
A dancing blaze raged and devoured what the horses had ferried. From what the guards could see, it was a carriage decorated with the effects of The Holy Applause.
Flames clapped, ranted, and raved over their conquest as their fiery tongues licked and lapped at the corpse left inside.
Its jaws were agape to the smoldering, abyssal sky as it, too, joined in Hell’s revel, signifying surrender of the flesh and forfeit of the spirit.
“Have you heard the tale…of The Old Black Crow?”
His voice was low and his cadence trolled with dramatics.
“Aye. You told it last night.”
“What? No, I didn’t.”
“Aye, you did. You were probably too many pints deep to remember!”
“No, I haven’t told this part!”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Pitts…”
It was another night at Ollie’s Tavern in the town of Ravencholy.
Five friends sat at the same old beer-soaked table, in the same rickety old seats, in the same old corner, on every other night. After a day’s work of hunting wild boars that threatened the town’s livelihood, they would eat and drink while they listened to the self-proclaimed “Loremaster,” Pitts, tell tales of the land of Victor’s Reign’s darkest legends.
Gordon, an orange, fat man who sat to the right of the pale, skinny Pitts, slammed his mug onto the table. “How long is this story?! I’m tired of hearin’ about The Old Black Toe.”
“Crow,” Pitts corrected.
“Oh.” Gordon belched before his face disappeared behind the wooden mug.
Pitts’s face, red and wet with the heat of alcohol in his veins, tried to regain control of his audience, “I’m almost finished! But, my mug is as dry as my throat.” He shouted, “There be thirsty men over here!”
Middle aged Donovan sat on the other side of Pitts. His mustache, with its few noticeable silver strings underneath jet black hairs, was soaked with suds as the bottom of his mug pointed to the ceiling until it was empty. “He’s just tryna buy time to make up more stuff. But, he’s right about one thing! Ms. Whitney! Three pitchers of Ollie’s Oil!”
Loud, busy nights were typical for the tavern, and Whitney was hopping from one table to the next, but was already well ahead of Donovan’s order.
This group of regulars would drink three to five full mugs of ale each. Once they all had gotten loose and loud, they’d order three large pitchers of Ollie’s special brew, along with several plates of Ollie’s famous herb roasted chicken and bowls of assorted nuts.
Whitney set the pitchers down without a single spilled drop and joined in the conversation, “What’s the story tonight, Pitts?”
“Whitney,” his voice cracked as he dropped it as low as he could, “have you ever heard of the tale of the…”
A quick readjustment.
“THE SECRET…Tale of the Old Black Crow?”
Rickon’s bushy, white eyebrows furled over wrinkled, timeworn eyes as fresh suds overflowed from his mug, “OHHHHH, you hear that? The Secret Tale of the Black Crow…just like last night.”
“It’s not!” Pitts protested.
“It is,” Whitney and the men said in unison.
Pitts hiccupped and collected himself, “It’s …a SECRET part of the secret story!”
Everyone threw their hands into the air in exasperation.
Short Waylon wrapped both of his hands around his mug and lifted it to his lips, “Well, tell us, Pitts!”
The “Loremaster” leaned forward, eager to boast on his endless fountain of Victor’s Reign’s folklore. “You know how everyone says that there is only one Black Crow? Yet, somehow, the plague doctor was always everywhere at once?”
“Uh huh,” his audience responded, unimpressed.
“Legend says he used black magic. But I know the truth. There were actually…two…plague doctors.”
Pleased with his delivery of his secret information, Pitts’s smug smile covered his face from ear to ear.
His friends exchanged glances with one another, then erupted into laughter.
Whitney gathered herself, “Pitts, that’s not a secret! EVERYONE knows that!”
Mort’s thick, brown beard was covered with foam when he laughed with a mouth full of the dark brown ale. “And, it wasn’t two. It was TWELVE!”
Pitts shouted, “TWELVE?! No! That’s wrong! There were only two! Two Black Crows!”
Donovan tried to comfort Pitts with a sympathetic smile, “Sorry, but it’s twelve. And they all wore the same mask and clothes to look like it was only one Black Crow, or even two. I guess.”
Pitts bullied a lone, innocent bubble in his ale with his finger.
Gordon slapped a heavy hand on the storyteller’s sulking shoulder, “It’s still a good story!” He got up from the table, “I gotta hit the loo. Hey, Ms. Whitney, we’re gonna need-”
Whitney made her way back into the kitchen, “Already cookin’!”
Gordon navigated through the rowdy patrons that danced and clapped where Leo, the Wandering Bard, played his lute and sang songs.
“There once was a beggar boy
who danced with a certain joy.
He would hop and prance at the sound
of the bard’s medley all around~’
A woman kissed Gordon’s cheek, and pulled him into rhythm with her steps, but he politely declined her invitation with a smile.
She whined, “Gordon! I’ve waited all night for you to dance with me!”
“I will, Jaclyn, my dear! Just be sure to save the last dance for me,” he replied.
“You better not keep me waiting, Gordon Holbrook,” Jaclyn called out.
“I’m a man of my word, darlin’!”
Gordon arrived at the toilet’s locked door and knocked, “Hurry up in there, I’m about drown in me boots!”
He was answered with the sounds of retching and the splatter of fluids.
“Apologies, mate! Carry on!”
A nervous rush overcame his body.
“Archbishop’s golden piss pot, I’m gonna burst!”
He ran out of the nearest exit and into the cold, winter night.
The streets of Ravencholy were mostly empty by this time of night with the exception of the tavern’s guests.
In the far off distant skies to the east, the lights of Saint Alexander’s Cathedral could be seen over in Haydenbough, the capital of Victor’s Reign. Due to structure’s massive size, its lights were often mistaken for stars on some nights.
Gordon slipped into the shadows of the tavern where he could not be seen as he relieved himself.
He got his own boots wet as it was difficult to see where he was aiming.
“Gah! It’s so damn dark!”
That’s when it occurred to him.
Even with the glow of the silver moon to serve as night’s chaperone, its light refused to meet the quiet earth.
This sparsity of illumination birthed a dreadful thickness into the air.
While it was cold, it was not the familiar chill that winter brought. There was something separate and unfamiliar hidden within the foreboding silence of the wind.
Even the homely lamps that lined the long Cobblestone Row faintly glowed like the pulsing lights of ghostly fireflies that one would find along the River Styx.
However, behind the tavern, in this unwelcoming, uncanny isolation from the world that he knew, Gordon would witness an image that would stir a long forgotten memory that he would’ve preferred had stayed that way.
At the end of the alley that stretched on into a black sea, were two red circular flares.
The image sobered him and granted him the curse of clarity.
There was something in the open maw of that hall and it stood and stared, watched and waited. At the top of its impossibly dark silhouette, there were two large points that sat on, what he assumed was, its head.
The abrupt appearance of clouds that blotched the sky, the same sky that was clear barely a minute ago, caused what little light that did reach the earth, to shine…differently.
It curved and bent around what Gordon couldn’t see, but knew, without a doubt, was there. His mind suggested that what the moon’s gleam revealed was nothing more than scraps of metal that had been set against the wall in the alley.
But, his traitorous imagination convinced him that they were the fangs of a memory that had returned to stalk within his mind just as it did all those years ago.
Even from where he stood, the shadow of what consumed every gleam of light, along with every stitch of night loomed over him.
Gordon sprinted back into the tavern, and through the crowd. He ignored Jaclyn as she shouted and pulled at his arm, and sat silently back at his table.
The change in his demeanor didn’t go unnoticed.
Donovan asked, “What is it?”
Gordon, locked in a partially catatonic state, spoke weakly, “There’s a wolf outside.”
“The last time anyone saw a wolf in Victor’s Reign was when-”
“I’m aware.” A shaken Gordon cut Donovan off before he could finish his sentence. He refilled his mug and drank.
Some men drink to remember, others drink to forget.
This was the latter.
“But, I know what a wolf looks like, and that was a wolf.” He drank, then added, “Biggest goddamn wolf I’ve ever seen.”
Pitts’s ears perked up at Gordon’s statements.
“A giant wolf…and on the Eve of the First Snow...”
His thoughts raced, his fingers twitched, and his eyes were wide.
“What?” Rickon prodded.
Gordon’s knuckles turned white as he gripped his mug.
Pitts looked at each one of his friends in their eyes.
“Do any of you remember….the Rhyme of the Dark Rider?”