The following is an excerpt from my new fantasy novel, The Lion's Crown (Amazon link). Sir William Carlyle and his companions have been tasked with exploring the mysterious Hobswood Forest. The party has crossed through the Bleaklands, the bog that rings the forest, and have made camp for their first night inside the wood.
* * *
Sir William let out a puzzled grunt. He reached forward to stoke the fire but paused. He was looking beyond it and beyond Sir Alfred, who was sitting opposite him. “A lurking shadow,” he whispered. “The wraith!”
Everyone but Owen sprang to their feet. Swords were drawn, but William was at the pile of packs. He pulled out the torches and tossed them to the others. They lit the torches in the fire, but before anyone could act, the dark shape swept toward them. Sir Alfred yelled out as it whipped by him, but his torch was already lit. He lashed out, and the flame licked at the edge of the shadow.
A scream like wind rushing through a cavern pierced their ears. The wraith dashed past them and up onto the boulder. It glided across the rock and down into the ravine beyond.
The four knights stood with their torches held aloft, facing the boulder. George armed himself with a brand from the fire and pushed Penny and Owen back behind him.
“If we can’t kill it,” Sir William said grimly, “then we can’t sleep. It could return at any time during the night.”
They spread out in a circle around the fire and stood silently, watching and waiting. Minutes passed without anything happening, but the second their guard began to slack, the thing rushed out from the trees on one side of their camp. Again it charged by them, seemingly trying to graze them without getting caught by one of the torches. But as it whipped past George, he flung his burning stick toward it. The brand hit the wraith squarely and passed through it, but another chilling scream told them it had been injured. It sped around the camp in a circle, making quick, jerky advances ever few seconds. Sir Stephen cried out as it touched his leg, but he was able to graze it with his torch before it could dart away again. He fell to one knee but he kept his torch at the ready as he rubbed his calf where the wraith had stung him.
Again and again, the wraith tried to graze them, and even though Harold, George and William each also suffered the thing’s touch, they were able to retaliate every time.
The wraith’s dizzying rush began to slow, and as it made one final advance toward Sir William, he brought his torch down like a headsman’s axe.
The burning end of the torch seemed to pin the wraith to the ground, and as it flailed, William took several more stinging touches before it finally fell still.
William collapsed onto the ground next to the wraith. His forehead was glistening with sweat, and his face was twisted in agony.
“Is it dead?” Harold called, hobbling over.
William poked at the wraith with his torch. It didn’t flinch. “I believe so.”
They all gathered around the thing for a better look. Its edges were indistinct, but the body was roughly diamond shaped. A wispy tail trailed behind it, but they couldn’t make out any eyes, mouth or limbs. Without it moving, it was almost impossible to see. It was a shadow on the ground, nothing more, and Penny had to fight an impulse to look around for the real creature that was casting that shadow.
As they studied it, the wraith began to thin. The shadow grew lighter, and a moment later it dissipated as a breeze blew across the camp. It drifted away like smoke, and they were left staring at an empty patch of ground.
“By the lion’s tail,” Sir Alfred muttered.
Sir Stephen turned away and looked into the dark forest. “Do you suppose this is the same one that attacked us at the village?”
William shrugged. “That wraith did escape across the bog.”
“But how many of them could there be?” Stephen asked. “The forest could be thick with them for all we know.”
“Sir William?” George said.
“Penny and I have lived on the edge of the Bleaklands all our lives. If there were many such things, I believe they would be encountered much more often. Until the recent attacks at the village, wraiths were only known from ancient stories.”
William stood up from his kneeling position. “I hope you’re right. Still, there are six of us who can stand watch. Two of us will be on guard at all times. I will stand the first watch with… Penny.”
The others mumbled their agreement and rounded the fire back to the bedrolls lined up along the base of the boulder. George gave Penny a light kiss before he left, and she blushed as she glanced over at Sir William.
William extinguished the torches with a thick cone of stiff leather but kept them nearby, ready to be relit. He sat down on the side of the fire opposite the boulder. “Back to back,” he said to Penny. “We can lean against one another so we don’t get too many aches.”
She sat behind him, facing away. “Why not just lean against a pack?”
“This way one of us will know if the other begins to fall asleep. And since we can feel each other moving, that will help keep us alert.”
Penny felt strange with Sir William’s back pressed against hers, but after a few minutes her discomfort subsided. The warmth was reassuring. She felt him fumbling with something, and a moment later it was pressed against her arm.
“Here, take it,” he said.
She reached around and took the object with her other hand. It was Sir William’s knife. She slid it out of the leather scabbard and looked at the blade. “But wraiths aren’t hurt by weapons,” she said.
“No, but wraiths aren’t the only thing to be concerned about.”
She felt stupid for not thinking of that and was glad Sir William wasn’t able to see her blush. “Of course,” she said. She looked across the fire at George. “Sir William, why did you choose me to keep watch with you?”
“I wanted to speak with you.”
She heard William take a breath. “I wanted to say that I am sorry.”
“For forcing Owen to come with us. Only I had my king’s order….”
“And we must be able to rely on one another, yes?”
“So I hope we can be friends. Neither you nor George has done or said anything to concern me, but I do have to be able to trust you both. With my life. If there is any resentment, I hope you’d let me know now. We could talk it over and come to an understanding.”
Penny leaned her head back to look at the sky but straightened her neck again as the back of her head pressed against William’s. “Perhaps you won’t understand this,” she said, “but people like us… George and me… we’re used to having no say in what happens to us. The lord who owns our village is a good man, and for that we are fortunate, but we must still obey him without question. So when you, a knight, comes and says something must be done… well, it must be done.”
“I do not want you to see me like that,” William said quietly. “And my life is no different, whatever you may think. When my king commands me to do something, I must do it. My life is not my own either.”
“But you, in turn, can command others. Even your fellow knights must follow your orders, as you’ve been put in charge by the king. I command no one.”
“Owen does what you tell him.”
“That’s not the same. He’s older than me and a man. If he were normal….” She let the thought go.
“I understand,” he said. “And I am sorry. Please don’t see me as the one who commands you. Let us be friends.”
“Friends,” Penny said. She looked left then right, scanning what could be seen in the ring of light cast by the fire.
* * *