Mist gathered low on the ground, swirling around the trunks of the tall trees, forming shapes amongst the bark and frosty leaves. Sometimes the mist swept up slowly, like a candle melting in reverse. Looking down at his boots, Lascelles eyed the dew drops on the leather’s surface.
Weather had no timing in Faerie, and time itself, he suspected, did not exist. In what felt like seconds, it could freeze, frost biting at his skin. It had become so cold his hands cracked as though they were fine porcelain china. Even though he watched and waited for them to break, they did not fall apart.
As time ceased to exist, so had his rational thought. Lascelles did not know how long ago he crossed the bridge into Faerie. It did not have days and nights like they had in England, and he struggled to remember what they felt like. His mind was preoccupied with a new task now: he would be the first champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart to reach the Lady. For she had sung to him for some time now, the melody coming and going, drifting through the forest. At times it sounded as though she were right beside him, sitting with him on the dewy leaves. At other times, it felt as though she were not there at all and her indistinguishable voice was an echo in his mind, like a distant, fading memory. But her figure, shadowy and still, remained in the window of the castle’s tower, watching him… waiting for him. And he was not prepared to disappoint her.
He did not know what would greet him when he reached her. Perhaps, like him, she was surrounded by corpses in her small prison. Perhaps she was a damsel awaiting the relief of her Champion, or maybe Lascelles was to put her out of her misery. The thought of strangling her and watching her body drop from the height of the window had entered his mind - a thrilling image.
So he started to walk towards the castle, which was some miles away, though it looked much closer than it was in reality. Faerie was not straight land. At times he appeared to be at a great height, looking down at the castle’s tower from a distance, and at other times, he was much closer, almost within proximity to touch its walls. The ground felt like it could shift under his feet at any time, and usually, it felt better to keep moving rather than stand still.
He gripped his pistol. It had not been used for some time, (well, he could not precisely recall the last time he fired it), but it had not left his grasp since he shot his first challenger.
Leaves crunched under his feet as he continued walking. The singing sounded closer, a little clearer. He stared up at the window as he walked, the Lady’s dark figure a small shadow only just visible to his naked eye.
Beside him something stirred, and his attention snapped away from his task. He raised his pistol slowly towards the sound and steadied himself on the ground. A corpse that hung from a tree branch a few feet to his right was swaying ever so slightly, the rope’s friction producing the sound. The singing stopped
Lascelles walked towards the swinging corpse and reached out his hand to steady it. It stilled, the rope silencing. He studied it for some time, looking up into its face, the rotting flesh crawling with maggots and flies. It did not perturb him, but as there was not an ounce of wind or one gust of air in the forest, he was slightly unsettled by its movement.
He remembered the small eyeglass he kept in his pocket and decided to study the corpse for any unfamiliarities. The human body still fascinated him in Faerie the ways it had in England. And yet these bodies, seen so many times before, offered nothing different or new. But still...he looked, in the hope that one day, something would surprise him. What he was looking for he wasn’t sure, perhaps it was distraction; he didn’t want to consider how silent the forest was when he could not hear the Lady singing.
He looked over the corpse’s hands, the fingers black and bony, nails long and yellowed at the ends. Its long, dark cloak hung heavy about the legs, frayed at the edges, threads brushing the light snow on the ground. Lifting the eyeglass, Lascelles brought it up to the corpse’s face and peered through. Instead of maggots and flies and rotting flesh, the face he saw was fresh and pink-cheeked, lips full of pulsing blood and eyes open, a piercing blue staring back at Lascelles with the same studious glare.
Gasping at the sight of something so live, Lascelles dropped the eyeglass and jerked back with shock. He regained his breath quickly. Without the eyeglass, the corpse appeared in its normal state: rotting flesh and hollow, empty eye sockets. Blinking several times, Lascelles looked to the ground where his eyeglass lay beside a large stone, the glass cracked. He found he no longer cared for it.
Looking towards the castle, the singing started again. Perhaps it never stopped. He couldn’t tell.
He continued to walk.
Although time did not exist in Faerie as it did in England, Lascelles still had a sense of it passing. And it passed now, longer and longer, as he dragged his feet onward towards the castle. He found now that his desperation to seek the Lady was not to kill her but to yearn for her. He could not remember a time when he felt yearning, be it for love or for flesh. Something in her singing though stirred this want within him. It sounded sad, and the unrecognisable feeling of empathy overcame him. He supposed it was a side-effect of being her Champion, that he was meant to feel protective over her the way any Knight would. He knew he was no Knight, but he certainly had the valour of one. And when he finally reached her, she would see that. She would reward him. He knew that.
The mist thickened into fog, first at his feet and then upwards into the sky until it surrounded his whole body. It smelt cold, if cold had a scent, and the dew on his boots turned to frost.
Eventually, the fog was so thick he could not see through it, but he followed the sound of the Lady’s voice which grew stronger as his vision lessened. He could still see the outline of the castle’s tower, the window barely aglow in the distance. Lascelles persisted.
His legs came to an automatic stop when he heard leaves crunching behind him. The fog that had been dancing around him settled. He turned towards the sound and walked slowly. The mist parted before him like the Red Sea. Nothing. Just trees.
Frustrated, he turned back toward the castle. The singing was distant again, almost inaudible. He walked over dead flowers, dead leaves, past dead bodies hanging from trees. The stench of death filled his lungs, intoxicating him like an old wine. He remembered death, remembered life too. He remembered taking a life and the adrenaline that accompanied it.
He came to a standstill again. A shimmering light caught his eyes beside him, something sparkling. Beneath a hanging corpse with a long dark cloak that brushed the light snow on the ground was a large stone. Beside the stone was a broken eyeglass.
Lascelles frowned. The scene was so familiar, yet it felt like such a distant memory. He put the eyeglass in his pocket; it felt like the natural thing to do. While looking at the corpse, the singing in the distance stopped. He took a few steps back and stared, cocking his head. The body seemed familiar, yet due to its decay was almost unrecognisable as a body at all.
Time did not stop or start, but Lascelles had a sense of it passing. He looked towards the castle again. The mist was clearing. A dark figure stood at the window: the Lady, watching him, waiting for him.
Lascelles was not prepared to disappoint her. And so he continued to walk.