Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 5


Sir Garath placed a firm hand on Father Beren's arm as the stout priest made to enter the Labyrinth. His eyes blazed, and his mouth was set in a thin line.  Jonn stood just beside Garath. His hand trembled, aching to draw steel.

"Peace, good knight," said Beren. As he said this his eyes flicked across to Jonn.  "You would never have opened the way without me."  Jonn took a step back, but his trembling did not ease.  He was there.  He was there!  I should kill him.

Garath tightened his grip on the priest’s arm, and gritted his teeth.  The thief walked right past them, seemingly heedless of the tension, and peered inside.

"It's going to be dark in there," he said. "Should we light torches?"

"No need to waste them," said Beren cheerfully, never taking his eyes from Garath. "I may provide us light for a time."

Garath held his gaze for a moment longer, then slowly nodded and relaxed his grip. "Aye. Gather the others, Jonn. I would speak to them before we venture into that pit."

"But what about—"

"Just go, boy! We’ll talk of this later."

Jonn scrambled back up the path toward the camp.  His shaking eased as he moved further away from the Labyrinth's entrance, and warmth of the rising sun settled into his bones.  His anger was still there, still nestling like a viper in his belly, but for reasons he could not understand he was unable to unleash it.  Perhaps it was because the priest was too useful.  He had opened the door, after all.  Or perhaps, Jonn thought to his own disgust, it was because he liked the man.  No, it couldn't be that.  He had a job to do, that was all, and the priest was there to help him do it.

The sun was well over the horizon now, and the camp was showing greater signs of life.  Jonn passed by the swordswoman, who was perched one-legged on a boulder, holding her sword motionless over her head.  The archer was sat next to a guttering fire close by, inspecting his arrows.  Everywhere the peasants trudged to and fro, gathering equipment and checking the horses. Even the mercenaries were awake, singing rowdily.  All except the three women, wrapped head-to-foot, crouching silently as they sharpened their spears.  Sir Garath’s squire was the only one asleep, still wrapped up in his bedroll.

Jonn told the swordswoman that Sir Garath wanted everyone at the Labyrinth's entrance as soon as possible.  A smile touched her lips and then, without the slightest loss of balance, she threw her sword into the air and vaulted from the boulder.  She landed on her hands, rolled forward, and came up on her feet in time to catch it and bow to Jonn with a flourish.

"You don't have to show off for me," said Jonn, barely able to get the words out.  He felt nervous around her, and not a little bit awestruck.  It was difficult not to be.

"Not just for you," she said.  "I show off whenever there is an audience."

She sheathed her sword and sauntered back into the camp, graceful with every step.  Jonn turned to the archer, who was staring at the swordswoman with an odd gleam in his eye.

"Sir Garath—"

"I heard thee," said the archer coldly, and returned to his arrows.  Jonn was not at all reluctant to continue on his way toward the camp.  There was something about the archer that made his muscles freeze, and his breath catch in his throat.

The mercenary camp was ahead of him, and  Jonn grew nervous as he approached it.  He couldn't see the one-eyed giant.  The only member of their band that he could see was a dark-haired warrior in a battered breastplate, pissing openly and drinking from a flask with his free hand.

A stooped old peasant walked by him carrying a pair of saddlebags, and Jonn stopped him with a hand on the shoulder.

"Would you mind fetching the mercenaries?" he said. 

The old man looked at him sideways with a sly grin. "I might, if’n I might lighten me load a bit. A copper or two ain’t so heavy as these saddlebags, ya know."

Jonn frowned and turned to leave, but then the one-eyed man emerged from a tent, clad in burnished mail with a greatsword strapped to his back.  Jonn stopped, and reached into his pouch.  He had but two coins, a silver noble and a copper common.

He held the copper coin in his hand. It was tarnished and battered, with clipped edges, but even so it was more than the old man’s services were worth.  He placed it back in his pouch, deliberately tied up the strings, and gave the silver coin to the old man.

The old peasant took the coin with a shaking hand, his face scrunched up quizzically, but soon the puzzled look disappeared, and the coin vanished into his pouch. He dropped the saddlebags into the road and ambled towards the mercenary camp. Jonn breathed a sigh of relief, and started gathering the others, and soon they were filing along the trail towards the Labyrinth.

As Jonn finished telling the last of the peasants to gather, he noticed that Garath’s squire still lay wrapped in his bedroll.  Scowling, he walked over to the boy.

"Up you get," he said. "Sir Garath has asked us to gather. The Labyrinth is open, and I think we will enter today."

The squire did not answer, so Jonn knelt down and shook him gently.  He shot up from his bedroll, a wild look in his red-rimmed eyes.

"I know," the squire said with tight lips. "I know what’s going to happen. I know what’s going to happen to us all."

"You don’t know," said Jonn. "Now get up, before I fetch Sir Garath to drag you out. You’re the last one."

"Oh no, don’t fetch Sir Garath," the squire said with a sneer. "Don’t fetch the Coward Knight." He motioned with a laugh to the knight’s arms and armour, which were piled nearby. His shield was in plain view, a round iron disc emblazoned with the sigil of a rampant mouse.

Jonn ripped the blanket from the squire and backed away a few paces. "Stay here and freeze to death then," he said. "Or come with us into the depths. It matters not to me."

The squire’s turned an angry shade of red. He said nothing, but instead grabbed his cloak and started gathering his gear. Jonn dropped his head, and handed back the blanket.

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I'm just trying to gather everyone, and...  I understand your fear.  It must be difficult, coming to this place against your will."

"I do my duty," the squire sneered, and said no more.  Jonn did not bother to press him.  With a shake of the head, he turned and walked back up the trail. When he reached the entrance to the Labyrinth he saw everyone milling around on the trail. Sir Garath stood on a stone outcropping and addressed them.

"Listen," said the knight. "Where we go is no place for dissent. There must be no strife amongst our ranks. Our survival depends on our staying together."

"Even when we take a piss?" said the thief with a laugh.

"Especially then," said Garath. "No one relieves themselves without a partner. I'm sure your northern friend will be happy to oblige. When we camp, we camp with a watch. When we move, we move in formation. Warriors at the front and rear, the rest of you between. Like so."

Sir Garath directed the others back and forth, until they formed a line two abreast. The knight and the barbarian took the point. Behind them were the priest and the swordswoman. Jonn was placed in line behind Father Beren, with the archer beside him. Sir Garath's squire rounded the corner, weighted down with the knight's arms; he shot Jonn a sour look as he was directed to his place in the line behind him. Behind them were the sorceress and the thief, who eyed his companion with open appreciation. The mercenaries brought up the rear, the scarred captain and his motley band of seven warriors. The one-eyed giant towered over everyone, and leered with broken teeth when he saw Jonn watching him.

"When we move from the passages into more open areas, some of you mercenaries move to the flanks. We keep two light sources at all times, at the front and rear. We move quietly, and speak only when we must. And when I give orders, you obey."

"You ask much," said the sorceress.

"And demand more," Garath replied. "Who objects?"

"I just wonder why you'd put us in the rear," rumbled the one-eyed giant.  "A band of cutthroats like us?  We'd turn on you for a fatter purse in an instant."  His fellows snickered and guffawed loudly, all except for the captain, and the ever-silent women.

"You're not likely to be bribed by the denizens of the underworld," said Sir Garath. "And even if you are, I am much less likely to betray you than they would be."

"Art thou done?" said the archer. He shifted from foot to foot, his eyes flicking toward the open maw of the Labyrinth with thinly disguised eagerness.

"Aye. Get your equipment in order. We enter within the hour."

The carefully formed line dispersed, and Jonn walked over to Garath. The knight had climbed down from the rocks and was talking to the old peasant that Jonn had met earlier.

"Take good care of the horses," said Garath. "Wait for a month. If we have not returned to your village by then, you may do with them as they will. Except for my charger; him you must treat with utmost caution, and return to my estate. I have arranged for a handsome reward to the man that brings him back. Do you understand?"

The old man’s eyes gleamed as he rubbed his hands together and bowed his head.

"Good," said the knight. "Take your fellows and go. This is no place for them now that the doors are open. You’ve served well."

Again the old man bowed, and shuffled over to the other peasants. Jonn saw him issue some commands, and the group started moving back towards the camp, where the horses were still tethered. They patted each other on the back and exchanged cheerful banter, no doubt happy for the coins they had been paid for only two days of work, but Jonn noticed more than a few of them glancing nervously at the Labyrinth’s entrance.

Gam, the boy that Jonn had shared breakfast with, was with them, his head downcast. He looked tentatively back over his shoulder towards Sir Garath as he was leaving, then turned back and started walking towards the knight.  Sir Garath was busy donning his armour with the help of his squire, and had not noticed.

Jonn greeted the boy with a hand on the arm. "What’s wrong, Gam? Did Sir Garath forget your pay?"

"Nah, it ain’t that," said Gam, his eyes flicking nervously toward the gaping mouth of the Labyrinth. "I just... I need to talk to him, that’s all."

Jonn stepped aside with a smile, and guided him forward. "Speak up, then. He’s far from the most dangerous man here."

Gam ran his hands through his hair. "Excuse me, milord, but may I talk to you?"

Garath turned his head towards the boy. His squire was kneeling on the ground, strapping his greaves to his shin. "Speak up," he said. "What is your name?"

"Gam," he said. "It’s just that, well... It’s like this. I got to go in there. I got to."

Jonn gave a start. Gam was barely more than a boy, a scrawny youth who could barely put one foot in front of the other without tripping.  What use could he be in such a dangerous place?

"Into the Lightless Labyrinth, you mean," said the knight.

Gam nodded with a solemn expression.

The squire looked up, his face pale. "Mad," he whispered. "You’re even madder than the rest of them."

"Be silent," said the knight, cuffing his squire lightly on the back of the head. He turned his attention back to Gam. "Why do you want to go in?"

"Well milord, it sounds a bit silly, but... Me dad died a few moons ago, an’ our pigs got stole, an’ I got an awful lot o’ brothers an’ sisters. Me mam can’t feed ‘em all, though she tries. I’m the oldest, an’ I thought... Maybe I could go down there with you, into that place. There’s an awful lot o’ gold down there, the stories say."

Sir Garath looked grave. "They may just be stories. We don’t know if there is any gold, or anything at all. Knowing this, are you still certain you wish to accompany us?"

Gam spoke without hesitation. "I am milord."

"I admire your bravery, young Gam. You will be our porter, and carry as much of our supplies as you are able. You will be armed, though I will not ask you to fight unless necessary. I will leave you in the care of my squire, Harin. He will equip you for your duties."

Gam gave a beaming smile as he thanked the knight. The squire only scowled though sullen eyes as he rubbed his head where the knight had struck him.

"Go back to your fellows and let them know that you are leaving," said the knight. "But be quick about it. We enter soon."

Jonn shivered. He looked across at the gaping maw of the Labyrinth. Thin grey vapours issued forth from the blackness, and he could not see more than a foot inside, despite the bright daylight. Everything he had sought for the last three years lay within those tunnels, as well as everything he feared. Not for the first time, he prayed that it would all be over soon.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 4


Sir Garath opened his mouth to question the next of his petitioners, but he was silenced by the sound of an empty tankard being slammed on the table. Jonn turned his head, and saw a burly figure in mail wiping his ale-soaked hand across his mouth. His face was marked by two livid purple scars that met in an X on his chin.

"What about you? Andarrion, ain't it?" he said in a thick Sturnish accent. "You're quick to ask about us, but I don't hear you saying much. I'd like to know if I'm wastin' me time."

"Sir Andarrion," said the knight, "or Sir Garath, if you must. And my quest is a simple one. I seek the king."

"After five years in the Labyrinth?" the mercenary scoffed. "The king's dead. But if your gold's real it's a good enough reason for me."

"It's real enough," said Garath. "And I seek the king, alive or dead. One way or another, I would know the truth behind his betrayal."  He looked pointedly at the priest.

"Betrayal is a strong term," said Father Beren.

"One I stand by."

The two stood facing each other, with eyes locked. Though the priest seemed no more perturbed than usual, Jonn could see that Sir Garath was almost shaking. He appreciated the knight's anger, and shared it. Five years ago, the king had entered the Lightless Labyrinth. Five years ago, the church had sealed the Labyrinth with prayers and wards, and seized the throne. The king was not the only one sealed in the Labyrinth that day. I will have my answers, priest. 

"Do you really think the king may live?" said Jonn.

Sir Garath straightened, almost as though he had forgotten that others shared the room besides himself and Father Beren.

"I know not, lad. He was just a boy when he led that expedition into the Labyrinth. But, be he alive or dead, I believe that the truth of his fate will put this kingdom to rights."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 3


Jonn was awakened just before daybreak by the sound of cursing. The barest hint of sunlight peered through the black branches. An old tree root had worked its way into his back during the night, and he groaned as he rose from his bedroll.

The camp was mostly still. Here and there he could see sleeping figures, some stirring as they prepared to wake. Nearby, Jonn saw that Garath’s bedroll was empty. Jonn was an early riser, but he was unsurprised to discover that the knight was even more so.

The sound of cursing came again, from somewhere further down the road towards the entrance to the Labyrinth. Throwing his cloak around his shoulders, Jonn started walking towards it.

There were three fires in the camp-site. Two of them burned low, but one flickered with life, and the smell of cooking meat led Jon in that direction. One of the peasants, a boy just a few years younger than Jonn, was sitting by the fire, roasting a pair of sausages on a stick with a blank stare on his acne-scarred face.

"You’re going to burn those if they don’t come out soon," said Jonn.

The boy started and looked up at Jonn, blinking his red-rimmed eyes. "Sorry, milord," he said, pulling the sausages out of the fire with a start. "I am ever so sorry. Would milord like these sausages for his breakfast?"

Jonn sat down on the log next to the boy. "I’m no lord," he said. It was a lie; he was a lord, albeit a very minor one, but it was not something he told people about. "Just call me Jonn. Though, I wouldn’t mind a sausage if you can spare one."

The boy’s wide face split into a relieved grin, and he pointed the stick in Jonn’s direction. Jonn took a steaming sausage with his fingers, juggling it from one hand to the next before it was cool enough for him to take a bite. It was a bit gristly, and burned besides, but it was still beef, and settled his growling stomach.

"Thanks. Your name?"

"I’m Gam."

"You’re up early. The rest of your fellows are still asleep."

"I been up most o’ the night. I ain’t never been this far from home before. An’, you know. The Lightless Labyrinth, just a bit down the road."  He shivered.  "It makes me feel mighty queer."

"I know what you mean," said Jonn. "Soon enough I expect I’ll have passed beyond the doors, and gone below."

Gam's eyes were wide, his face solemn.  "You’re brave. Much braver than me, I reckon."

"No," said Jonn, smiling sadly. "I just have a job to do."

"They say there’s a lot o’ gold in there," said Gam, sighing. "I’d sure like to get some of it. For me mam."

Jonn’s eyes were drawn to the fire, where one of the logs split, sending a shower of sparks into the air. He had not seen his own mother for three years, and they had not spoken for months before that.

"Still, Lord Garath is payin’ me well. Just for carryin’ some things and mindin’ the horses, he’s payin’ us all pretty well. I just hope it’s enough."

"Don’t worry, Gam. I’m sure Sir Garath will be generous. And it’s very brave of you to come even this close to the Labyrinth. You’ll have a tale to tell when you get home, that’s for certain."

"Yes," said Gam smiling weakly. "I suppose I will."

Another round of curses and epithets came from vicinity of the Labyrinth’s entrance. Gam gave a start, and Jonn chuckled.

"I’d better go and see what’s happening," he said as he rose from the log. "Thanks for breakfast. We’ll talk again before you go."

Gam was giving his own farewell when Jonn noticed a figure sitting at a fire on the other side of the camp. It was impossible not to notice; the man was a hulking brute, close to a foot taller than any other man Jonn had ever met. His face was overgrown with a bristling black beard, but by the firelight Jonn could see that he had only one good eye. The other was gone, and all that remained was an empty red socket that seemed to glare balefully.

The hulking figure was one of the mercenaries. Jonn had never exchanged a word with him, did not even know his name. But the man was staring right at him with his one-eyed gaze, teeth bared in a sinister grin, face glowing red in the fire-light. Jonn shivered as he gripped the hilt of his sword. He quickly said his goodbyes to Gam and hurried down the path towards the Labyrinth.

As he neared the bend the stream of curses grew more audible. It was the thief, growing more hostile and inventive by the second. Jonn's nerves eased as he got further from the camp, but the strange man still weighed on his mind. He wondered if Sir Garath knew anything about him.

Jonn followed the path around the bend. Garath nodded to him in silent greeting from where he stood just a little way off the path. Father Beren stood opposite him, his eyes twinkling with amusement. The red-bearded barbarian held a lantern over the entrance to the Labyrinth, where the thief was hunched in front of the great door, working by the flickering light.

"This lock," said the thief, "is tougher than a northman's arsecheeks." He threw his tools to the ground in disgust.

"Should I be disturbed?" said the barbarian. "I am the only northman you know."

"Enough," said Garath. "I should have known you would be of no use."

"You’ve had no luck then?" said Jonn as he reached Garath’s side.  I have to go in.  There must be a way in.

"None," Garath replied. "Priests sealed these doors, and it will take more than a bent wire to gain us entry."

"Perhaps, then, I may be of assistance?" said Father Beren. "That is, if our friend thief has exhausted himself."

The thief waved for the priest to approach the doors. "Remember, I softened them up for you."
"I will say as much at your eulogy," said Beren as he studied the doors, running his hands over the time-worn stone.

"It is said that the priesthood holds knowledge of the secret word that can open the doors," said the knight.

"A word known only to those who were present on the day the Labyrinth was sealed," Beren said as he inspected the door.

"And were you?" The knight's jaw tightened as he grimaced the words.  Jonn felt his own muscles grow tense, and his fingers twitch.  No.  No, he couldn't have been there.

The priest gave no answer as he leaned back and stroked his beard. Then with a sudden exclamation he pointed his finger in the air. He opened his mouth and a voice rolled out, cavernous and deep. Jonn could not make out the words, even though he stood but a few feet away. They echoed in his head just beyond the edge of his comprehension, but they filled his mind with shadows and blackness.  He was reminded of the long nights in his room as a child, after his candle had gone out.  Don't think of it.  Not yet.  Not now.

The great stone doors split with a resounding crack, and swung slowly inwards. A blast of fetid air issued forth from the shadowed opening, and Jonn had to cover his mouth and nose.

Garath drew his sword. "Then—"

"Yes, yes, I was," said Beren, cutting him off. "And now I am here again. Let us gather the others, and prepare. The Labyrinth is open, and we must descend."

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 2


The candles burned low in the back room of The Wayward King, where Jonn sat huddled around a long table with eight others.  Six were men and two were women, and Jonn thought that he had never before been in such varied company.  They differed in size and age, dress and nationality, but there was one thing they all shared in common.  They were all here for a purpose.

Another man stood at one end of the table with the fireplace at his back.  He was tall and well-built, with dark hair and a neatly groomed beard, but his face was drawn in a permanent scowl beneath his heavy brows.  Though his coat was plain, it was obviously well-made, and the sword at his hip was similarly lacking in ornamentation.  Everything about him spoke of practicality; even his movements were purposeful.  Jonn found himself nodding in approval as the man spoke.

"Forgive my bluntness," he said, "but you all know why we're here, and I would waste no time."
No-one spoke, but the reason for this gathering hung heavy over them all.  The Labyrinth.  Only a week ago Jonn had arrived in Tyrest, looking for nothing more than time to rest.  To think on everything he had seen and done in the Northern Reaches.  He could hardly believe it when he had heard the word going around that a knight was seeking to make an expedition into the Lightless Labyrinth.

"You've all heard the tales, I'd wager," the knight continued.  "I don't know if they're true or not.  Fell beasts and fabulous treasure, that's what they promise.  Well, I make no promises, for good or for ill.  But know this: I am going into the Lightless Labyrinth.  Alone if I must, though I would prefer some comrades.  That is why we are here.  For me to measure your character, and make my decision.  Impress me, and you may join my quest.

"You’ve heard me speak," he said. "And now I would hear from you." The knight's gaze slowly swept the room, pausing briefly on each of the people seated at the table.  When Jonn's turn came, he had the distinct feeling that he was being weighted and measured, that every aspect from the stitching of his cloak to the cut of his hair was being assessed.  He found himself sitting up straighter, and averted his eyes in embarrassment.

Finally, the knight's attention fixed on one of the men, a round-bellied, grey-bearded fellow who was calmly leaning back on his chair and sipping a glass of red wine. "You go first, old man," the knight said, his voice cold. "One of your age and girth hardly seems fit for a journey into the labyrinth."
The old man simply smacked his lips and smiled, seemingly oblivious to the knight's comments. "My dear sir, do allow a humble man of the cloth to finish his wine. There are more than enough fine men and women here with stories to tell."

Jonn felt a sudden surge in his chest.  A priest.  His hand strayed to the pommel of his sword.  Once he had believed in the church, but all that had changed five years ago.  A murmur passed around the room, and even the knight stepped back, his lips twitching.

"Do you mean to report us to your superiors, priest?  You would never leave this room alive.  Speak up!"

"Report you?  No, intend to join you my good fellow.  Nevertheless, I cannot possibly speak at length with such a splendid vintage set out before me." The priest raised his glass and gestured towards Jonn. "Perhaps this bold warrior would like to begin?"

Jonn sat up with a start.  Does he sense how I feel?  He paused for second, unable to speak, then simply shook his head.

"No, priest," said Sir Garath. "I will hear your story first, or none at all."

The priest stood from his chair and gave a gracious nod towards the knight. Though his belly was large, Jonn was surprised to see that he stood straight-backed, in such a way that no man would ever describe him as fat.  He stroked his silver-grey beard as he eyed the knight with an amused expression.

"I am known as Father Beren, good sir. A humble man of God, as you may have guessed."

Across the table another man snorted, spilling ale down his chin.  He was a lean, wiry figure, with a wry smile permanently fixed to his handsome face.  Jonn had seen him earlier, examining every item in the tavern as though assessing its value.  A thief, if ever I saw one.  "Few are the men of God who could be described as humble these days," said the thief.

"True enough," said Beren. "Though when you meet such pious men, it would be best to compliment them upon their humility, would it not?  Expecially in days such as these."

"Enough," said the knight. "This babbling gets us nowhere."

"Indeed," the priest continued. "Though I shall be required to babble just a bit if I am to explain what I seek. Have you heard the tale of what lies at the heart of the Lightless Labyrinth?"

"I know it," said the knight.

"Then you know what I seek. The secret. Indeed, the secret. The answer to the very meaning of our existence. That is what King Prias is said to have found there in ancient days, and I would seek it too."

"Why?" said the knight.

"I simply want to know," said the priest with a chuckle.  "Besides, you'll have little luck in entering the Labyrinth without me."

The knight fixed Beren with a hard gaze. "Know this, priest. Your kind has too many secrets, and I have no love for them. I would have it plainly. Do you work for the Priest-Regent?"

"But of course," said the priest, placing a hand on the silver cross around his neck.  "I am a man of the church, after all.  But let as say that in this matter, I am... engaging in some personal research. Are you satisfied?"

"For now," the knight growled.  Jonn loosened the grip on his sword, but he was far from satisfied.  Soon, priest.  Soon you'll give me the answers I need.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Lightless Labyrinth - Excerpt 1

Another new year, another resolution to post on this blog more often.  Yes, it's been a while, and yes, I've been writing during that time.  No, I didn't complete the Charles Atlas Method, and I didn't transform into a muscular Adonis.  I'm still just plain old me, devoid of muscles and sex appeal.

So here's the deal.  I'm not going to be posting here regularly.  I'm only going to post here when I have something to post about, like a new book or something.  What I am going to do in the meantime, however, is post the first part of my current novel in sections.  The Lightless Labyrinth is going to be my first fantasy novel, and it follows a band of disparate adventurers who enter a dangerous, ancient labyrinth with various agendas in mind.

Okay, here goes.  The first excerpt.



Jonn rode at the head of the column, clutching his cloak around him to protect from the bitter chill of mid-winter. The sun was dipping past the horizon, and the feeble rays that passed through the bare tree branches did little to warm his bones.
He turned to the knight riding beside him, craning his neck upwards. His own horse was several hands smaller than the knight's charger, making conversation difficult.  Not that they had spoken much; Sir Garath was not a man to waste words.

"Are we nearly there?" Jonn asked. "If it gets any darker one of the horses is going to break a leg."

"Aye," said Garath, not bothering to turn his head. "It's not far now."

Jonn turned his eyes back to the trail ahead. It was difficult to make out as it twisted its way through the barren trees, and the thin covering of grey snow did little to help. Here and there an old flagstone could be seen through the snow, a reminder of days when this trail had been more frequently travelled. Jonn had examined a few of these on the journey, but all were cracked and broken, or worn so smooth that they bore no sign of their origin. Nobody knew who had laid them, or why. Only the dead knew, now.

"What of the others, lad?" the knight growled. "Are they far behind?"

Jonn turned and glanced at the motley column that followed them. Garath’s squire rode a few paces behind them, his sour-faced expression deepening with every step. The thief and his barbarian companion rode side-by-side after him, bantering idly with each other as they had done non-stop for the last few days. The sorceress rode alone, unsteady in the saddle, wrapped silently in her cloak. Near her the swordswoman walked on foot; she had refused a mount, but even so she had kept pace with the horses easily, singing snatches of old songs and stories as she went. The priest rode near her, but he appeared to be spurring his horse forward to the front of the column. The archer came next on his coal-black horse, eyes darting to every tree and crest. Behind them all came the sellswords and their scarred captain, eight in all.  Most of them were voicing crude jokes and bawdy tavern songs, but there were three woman with them wrapped from head to foot in dark clothes, who Jonn had never heard speak at all.  There were also a dozen folk from the last village, loaded with supplies, and all twitching nervously as they neared their destination.

Jonn barely knew any of their names. He had met them all just a few weeks before, but had spent most of his time with Sir Garath. Even so, these were the men and women he had entrusted with his life, not to mention the task he had set himself. 

"No," he said. "Can't you hear the singing?"

"I can," said the knight, scowling.  "If they try that inside the labyrinth, I'll cut out their tongues."

Before Jonn could reply, the priest rode up between them with a smile and jolly wave. "What kind of talk is that for a band of boon companions?  Soon we will be facing certain death together!  Surely a more positive outlook would be more useful."

Jonn shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and tried his best to look away. The priest had been a jovial companion, and had he been anything else Jonn thought that he might have liked the man.  But he had heard the rumours, all the stories that told of what had befallen the old king.  The king, and his retainers.  My father.  He held his tongue, and listened.

"Priest," said the knight in greeting. The knight had rarely been more than coldly polite to any of the band, but his manner towards the priest was even harder.

"Good day," said the priest. "And how are you, young Jonn?"

Jonn started, and replied reluctantly. "I don't know. Just being here feels strange."

"We are all strange here, every one of us," said the priest.  "As are our surroundings.  That's what I came to tell you about.  Have you two noticed anything odd about this forest?"

The knight grunted and shook his head.

"It's the trees," said the priest. "Look closely."

Jonn looked around. The aspen trees were twisted and leafless, and many were bent near to the ground.  Yes, they looked sickly, and some were contorted into odd shapes, but to his eyes they did not look unusual.

"I see nothing out of the ordinary," Garath answered.

"Look how they grow. They have a common direction, it seems."

Jonn looked again, and he saw the priest's meaning. Each and every tree was bent in the same direction: to the south.  Away from their destination.

"Something to think on, is it not?" said the priest. "Trees possess no souls, yet even they seek escape from this place.  Where we are going, we must guard our own souls very well."

"Enough," said the knight. "We have no need for such talk."

The priest gave Jonn a secretive smile, before slowing his horse to return to the pack. Jonn rode in silence, trying to keep his eyes fixed on the trail ahead, but he kept glancing at the trees. Their twisted boles and empty, grasping branches reminded him of the starving refugees he had seen in the Northern Marches, desperate yet unable to escape their fates. He could still turn around and leave. There was still time, but as surely as the trees he was trapped.  He had a task to do, and that was that.

As day became twilight the sounds of insects and birdsong ceased, and all that could be heard was the crunch of the horses’ hooves, and the bawdy laughter of the mercenaries as they made mockery of the priest's superstitions. Jonn frowned, but held his silence. He had no love for the priesthood, but superstitions were not something to be laughed at, especially in a strange forest by night.  Especially not this forest.

As they continued the trees altered in colour, from grey to black, though Jonn thought it might just have been the deepening twilight playing tricks with his eyes. He was certain, though, that they bent even closer to the ground, and with every step those trees seemed to stretch and claw with greater desperation. He gripped the reins tightly until they almost cut into his fingers.

Still they pressed on. The horses grew skittish, their ears flat and their eyes rolling. Jonn had handled horses all his life, and he calmed his steed with soothing strokes and words. Others in the party were not so skilled, especially the sorceress, who gripped her reins with white knuckles as her horse stamped and whickered. Only the knight's charger was unaffected, and he rode around a bend in the trail with no backward glance for his companions.

Jonn urged his horse forward to follow the knight, and as he rounded the corner he pulled up short. The knight sat warily in the saddle, sword in hand. The trail ended just a few yards beyond him at a massive white stone on the slope of a jagged hill.

"Is that it?" said Jonn.

"Aye," said the knight. "The Lightless Labyrinth."

Jonn dismounted from his horse and hooked his horse's reins over a nearby branch. Sir Garath slipped deftly to the ground as well, and walked toward the smooth, white stone. Jonn followed him, stomach queasy and hands trembling. The knight glanced back at him, and placed a gloved hand on his shoulder.

"Stay strong, lad. The door is yet sealed, see?"

The knight’s firm hand seemed to ease his trembling, and Jonn replied with an uneasy smile. He walked forward with an easier stride, but his hand strayed to the pommel of his sword.
The hill was a mass of jagged black rocks, thrusting into the twilight sky like the claws of some demonic beast.  Jutting forth from those black rocks was a single white one, a round smooth stone marked with irregular holes.  Set into the stone was a granite door wide enough for three men to walk abreast, and to Jonn’s relief the door was shut as Sir Garath had said.

The thief was the first of the companions to round the path, leading his horse by the reins.  With his trimmed beard and fine silk clothes, he looked more like he was on his way to a ball than an underground expedition.  His barbarian friend, a hulking mass of muscle and bristling red beard, was close behind him; the two were never far apart. At the sight of the entrance, the thief started laughing.  The knight glared at him, but the thief only laughed harder.

"What is it?' said Jonn.  He liked the man, with his smiling face and ready quips, but he could never quite shake the feeling that the thief was making fun of him somehow.

"Take a look for yourself," said the thief, still chuckling. "Come back here and see!"

Jonn walked back and turned to look, following the thief’s expansive gesture. The queasy feeling in his stomach returned.

"It looks like a skull," he said quietly.

"Of course it does!" said the thief, nearly in hysterics. "What else would it look like?"

"It has a welcoming grin," said the barbarian. "Nice clean teeth. I like that." Jonn laughed nervously. The barbarian had been friendly enough, but Jonn had seen too many northmen in his days as a soldier, and fought against them as well.

"I never trust a man with all his teeth," the thief replied, regaining his composure.  He walked forward, slowly, and started examining the door, careful not to touch anything.

"Well," said the knight.  "Do you see anything?"

"There's a keyhole," said the thief.  "Nothing to deter a man of my skills, of course.  But there's more."  He started chuckling again, and tapped the white stone with his knuckles.  "This is no stone.  It is bone."

"A skull the size of a mountain," said the northman, whistling.  "I could finally fashion a drinking cup large enough to satisfy me."

"Quiet," snapped the knight. "It's time to make camp. At daybreak, we open the door and enter.  I hope you are as good as you say, thief."

Sir Garath led his horse back down the trail, and the thief and barbarian followed.  Jonn lingered, shivering as he looked upon the giant skull, and the granite doors.  And beyond them, the Lightless Labyrinth.

I'm coming, father.  I'm coming to find you.