The Dread Shadow

A short fantasy story, written for a contest on www.writing.com

The courtyard was empty but for a lone maid, who was slowly making her way across to the squat building set against the curtain wall. There could be no doubt as to her purpose, with the wicker basket balanced on one hip heavy with laundry. She was looking up at the sky in delight, watching the pale pink and orange hues spread across the expanse, chasing away the darkness of the night.

As the maid came towards the centre of the courtyard, her eyes dropped to look at her own feet. Her shoes were falling apart, and even now she could feel the cold, gritty mud seeping in between her toes. Looking up, she realised there was something in the middle of the courtyard. Someone lying down – a drunk from the feast the night before she surmised. When she reached his side, the maid gently nudged the fool of a nobleman who had passed out lying in the mud with her foot. He rolled over at the touch, to reveal the wound.

A scream shattered the peace of the morning air.

So shocking was it to find someone dead here, in the heart of Solgarde Castle, the centre of Lantidean power, that no one had noticed that the only footprints in the mud were those made by the passage of the maid. The scream had drawn the attention of the Custodians in the towers on either side of the gateway, and they quickly formed a ring around the corpse, and the now-hysterical maid.

Lojza, the Captain of the Watch, thrust his arms forwards, pushing his way through the crowd. One of his men recognised him and shouted.
‘Make way for the Captain. Make way, damn you.’ The Custodian stepped forward, spear raised as a threat.
The crowd opened a path immediately, fearing the well-known brutality of the Custodians. Lojza looked over to the man, his stare at once thanking him and ordering him to stand down. The spear was lowered, and the man stepped back with a sheepish expression plain on his features.

As Lojza looked down at the richly-dressed corpse, he realised he had seen him before, not two days passed. He could not remember the unfortunate’s name, but the man’s features told Lojza where he had come from. Clearly of the outlying provinces, from his weater-beaten face, Lojza thought the man had come in with one or another of the delegations staying in the castle at present.

The wound was ghastly: it had opened the throat from ear to ear, and the face was pale from blood loss.

***

Marenka stalked around her private apartment, impatient. She had heard the scream from the courtyard, but waited for confirmation.

Even as she turned at one end of the room, she saw ripples in the shadowed wall of the chamber, like waves of heat rising from a fire. Marenka shuddred, struggling to contain the wave of nausea which crashed over her at the knowledge that the creature was close. She watched as a patch of darkness detached itself from the shadows of the corner, sliding free until it became a separate entity.

Four ebony claws sprouted as feet from the two thickly muscled legs, that resembled the hind quarters of a horse. Its narrow waist rose to broad shoulders, and powerful arms ended in long, curved claws. The Shade’s head did not form, but remained an inky pool, roiling within its spherical bounds.

‘Well?’ Marenka asked. The Shade bowed awkwardly, its build making the movement seem unnatural.
‘Your will is done, mistress.’ The Shade’s speech was barely comprehensible for its sibilance.
‘Good. Now, I have a new requirement of you.’ Marenka allowed herself a small smile. Everything was going to plan. That fool Damek had no business threatening either her or her husband. Their position had to be made secure, and he seemed more interested in hunting boar than ruling the kingdom. It was down to her then to remove any political opponent, and she would do so with all the tools at her disposal. The King might disapprove of her methods, if he had known about them, for he had banned the type of magic required for summoning Shades almost a decade ago. She remained unconcerned by the knowledge. Even had he discovered her, Marenka would just use her pet to dispose of him, and then rule in his stead.
Her instructions did not take long, and the Shade was soon gone, fading back into the shadows of which it had been born.

Composing herself, she left her room, and entered the main space of the wing she shared with her husband. The cavernous chamber was empty, as she had expected, and she knew her husband would be off on yet another of his hunts. As normal, she took her breakfast alone, snapping at the servants when they took too long to bring the the second course of her meal. The shouts caused them to shrink back in terror for they had all felt the effects of her displeasure, and not one of them did not bear the scars on their backs.

***

‘Who was he then?’ Lojza addressed his commander, Jarek, with the precise amount of deferrence due. Here in the capital, tradition and etiquette bound the guards as much as it did the politicians.
‘Went by the name of Damek. He was the senior aide to a…Lord Toman who came in two days ago. They’ve been stirring up some of the country nobles against the King.’ Jarek was brusque in his manner, and looked up in expectation at Lojza, ‘why?’
‘I don’t think it was a blade which inflicted the wound.’ Lojza had been the captain on duty, and had spent a long time examining the body. The commander looked shocked, and Lojza hurried to qualify his conjecture. ‘At least, not a sword or knife. The cut isn’t precise enough. It looks more like a…a…an animal of some sort.’ His voice wavered slightly as he spoke. Lojza knew how ridiculous the thought sounded. No animal would be able to make it inside the city wall, let alone penetrate as far as the castle, perched atop the rocky crag.
‘And how do you suggest a beast made it inside the castle, at night, with the gates closed? No, we have a murderer,’ Jarek said, and then snorted. ‘An animal? Really, I wouldn’t have thought you to be such a fool, even if you are from the frontier.’
The contempt Jarek felt for this country bumpkin was almost a physical force, and he despaired yet again that he had been landed with him. The fool had nearly got himself killed saving a lord on the frontier, and his reward had been to promote him, and admit him to the Custodians.

Lojza coloured at the insult, but could do nothing more, constrained as he was the rules of the capital. He wanted to shout back that he was more of a soldier than the pampered idiot could ever be. He doubted the short, round man had ever swung his sword in anger. The young man bowed stiffly at the waist, and then turned on his heel to storm out.

Not content to accept his commander’s contempt, Lojza returned to the courtyard, where the body had by now been removed. He could still tell where it had lain however, by the dark stain on the usually light-coloured soil. As he walked to it, he realised that the body had been in the very centre of the courtyard, and wondered how no one had seen it happen, either from the wall, or from one of the windows of the castle.

He paused briefly to inspect the ground, but could not tell much from the churned mud, not with the passage of so many. Straightening, Lojza continued to the tower he had emerged from only that morning, and found a two guards taking their breaks. Both were in his detachment, and both had been there that morning.
‘Who was on duty on the walls last night?’ Lojza said.
‘I was on after midnight, sir.’ The man leaning against the wall to the right said. Lojza struggled to remember his name, but then it came to him.
‘And did you see anything, Radomir?’
Radomir paled, and looked at his companion. No help came.
‘Well? I asked you a question Custodian.’
‘I…I can’t.’ Radomir seemed to struggle with himself, but eventually got the words out.
‘You can, and you will.’ Lojza’s voice hardened, and his subordinate flinched. Despite his stern words, it took a few moments for the man to compose himself.
‘I saw a…a…shadow.’ Radomir looked utterly terrified. ‘It was a Shade, sir, and now its going to come after me.’
Lojza frowned. Shades had not been seen since the Dark Times, almost a decade ago. The king had banned the magic required to summon them, and those still in this world had gradually been hunted to extinction. At least, he thought, the theory about it not being a weapon was correct – Shades had long claws which they used to tear their victims apart.
‘Are you sure?’ Lojza asked, even though it was clear the Custodian was telling the truth from the sheer terror painted across his features.
The man could only manage a nod, and then bolted out the door. Lojza let him go; he had gotten everything he needed from the man.
His next task was to find a room in the castle which had an east-facing window. The summoning of a Shade required, among other things, a view of the moon rise.

***

Marenka screamed and threw the platter at the retreating back of a servant. It missed, and crashed against the wall, sending food everywhere.
‘Look what you’ve done now! Incompetent fools, I’ll have you whipped!’ She turned away, the servant already forgotten, and paced the room, turning back and forth like an angry cat. This Custodian would be troublesome. It was only a day after the murder, and already he was asking around, looking for the room she had used. How long before her husband returned and let slip that her own room had an east-facing window?
‘Get out, all of you!’ She screamed again, and reinforced her words with further thrown objects. The servants retreated, having no wish to witness her wrath any longer.

‘Slave, I require you.’ No sooner had the words left her mouth than the oily darkness formed in the shadows of the room and began to detach itself.
‘Yes, mistress?’ the Shade hissed.
‘There is a Custodian, asking questions, a captain. Make him disappear.’
‘Your will, mistress.’ The pool of darkness atop the broad shoulders made the words cold and detached, and she sensed a finality about them. The Custodian would die. She relaxed slightly, now that everything was coming back under control.
The darkness gradually dissipated, until the room was as it had been.

***

Finally, after two days of asking questions of everyone he saw, Lojza had found a suitable room. It was on the ground floor of the castle, at the base of one of the disused towers, and so people rarely ventured there. His heart sank however, as he forced the door open with a squeal of protesting hinges.
Quite aside from the fact that the door had clearly not been opened in quite some time, a thick layer of dust, and some kind of animal droppings covered the floor. The room was bare, and the window was scarcely worthy of the term. A thick layer of grime blocked any light, and the room was only dimly illuminated by the solitary torch of the hallway.

Against his better judgement, Lojza stepped inside. He had to make sure nothing was down here. There was something about the room which disquieted him, but he could not place his finger on it. After he moments just standing in the room, he realised what it was. The depth of the shadows seemed somehow abnormal. His blood ran cold.

The shadows were moving. This was a trap. He tried to remember who had sent him down here. Just another nameless servant, but now he came to think about it, he remembered the woman: she had been middle-aged, with the haunted look in her eyes that all those who personally served His wife had.

A figure formed, facing him below the window. It wasn’t human; its limbs formed unnatural angles, and a shifting cloud of darkness perched atop its shoulders. A Shade. Without realising, Lojza drew his sword, thankful he had brought it.
‘What do you want?’ Lojza did not know why he asked, and he wasn’t even sure if Shades could communicate.
‘Your life. The mistress wills it.’ Lojza struggled to discern the words. The creature spoke as he would expect a snake to, although he had no way of telling if a tongue formed the words or not.
‘The mistress? Who is that?’ Lojza knew he was going to die. His sword would be very little use, even if he could make contact. A strange calm came over him. His death was inevitable, so he might as well at least try to find out who had ordered it.
‘The Queen of the Lantideans, she who will be queen of the world.’ The Shade spoke with absolute certainty and, gazing into the abyss of its ‘head,’ Lojza struggled not to agree. There was nothing there; no mercy or compassion, only a detached implacability.

He was surprised at her nerve. Marenka had been at the King’s side for years, and yet he had still failed to notice his wife’s activities.
‘No one will ever know…I have to tell the king!’ Lojza took a deep breath, and moved into a guard position. One foot came forwards, and the other moved out to the side. He was ready.
Everything happened very quickly. The Shade sprang across the room in a single bound. Lojza swung at it with all his might, but the blow missed; the Shade glided around his blade, and was suddenly close. Staring into the unfathomable patch of darkness, Lojza barely felt the claws scythe into his midriff, eviscerating him.
The Shade withdrew its claws as the Custodian’s eyes glazed over, and the man became a corpse before he hit the floor. Its task complete, the Shade melted back into the darkness from which it had emerged, leaving no trace but the brutal wound.

***

Marenka smiled. Although Jarek had discovered that other Custodian’s body -Lojza?- eventually, he had assumed much like the rest of the castle that there was an assassin on the loose. She had shown the proper degree of horror, and fear at the prospect of an assassin roaming the halls, and Jarek had allowed her to influence his choice on who to promote in the dead man’s place. Even now, she stood at the top of the hewn, stone steps watching the ceremony which would culminate in the the selected man’s promotion.

‘Radomir, step forwards.’ Jarek’s voice was firm, and carried a level of authority that Marenka would not have thought of the man.
‘Sir.’ The named Custodian took two paces forward, out of the line.
‘It has been decided that you shall forthwith be promoted to the rank of Captain of the Watch, and shall have all the responsibilities and privileges thereof.’ The language Jarek was forced to use was archaic, but the very foundations of the kingdom were based on tradition, and the ceremony would not be considered proper unless it used the correct words.
Just like that, it was done. Radomir returned to his companions with a grin, and Jarek saluted them. He received a salute back, and then they were dismissed. The rank broke up, with most of the Custodians gathering around Radomir to congratulate him.

Marenka smiled once more as she turned away. She was safe. Radomir would be easy to manipulate, just like Jarek, so she need have no more fear of any interference from the Custodians. The King would never find out the actions she had taken to protect him.

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Historian/Author of The Shadow's Herald and The Drakvalka Saga. Book reviews, musings and the occasional rant land here.

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