PREFACE: In November, I introduced you to Count Varushka, one of the characters that my brother used to play at Renaissance Fairs. But he was perhaps best known for playing Jean-Jack Laroch, the “French Romanceteer,” modeled after D’Artagnan. I will be releasing several stories about him as well, and this is the first of these. I tend to think of this one as Epic Fantasy, but it has some elements of Science-Fiction... So I guess that makes it Science-Fantasy? Enjoy.
Though the sun may set every night, there are times when I doubt whether men truly appreciate such splendor. Take Sir Henry Gullifodd, Duke of Thyme, who would invariably go for a stroll before nightfall, walk into the nearest inn—no matter how seedy—, get drunk just as the sky shifted colors and oftentimes fall into such stupor as to have no recollection whatsoever of the previous night. It baffles me to no end that our senses could become so dull to the beauties of this world...
One such beauty—and arguably just as baffling—called upon me one fine evening of winter. My name had been whispered into her ear by a common acquaintance (the aforementioned Duke) along with directions to my current whereabouts—which happened to be an inn, albeit not a seedy one, as I do have some level of self-esteem.
The Lady Marthe was a peculiar woman. Dressed in white lace, black wool, and silken gloves, she walked up to my table and just stood there, her head held high, proud and defiant.
She was the heir to a large fortune and some say it had gone to her head... though I suspect she had always been arrogant. You don’t become this haughty overnight.
“You are Sir Laroch?” she asked.
I stood, tipped my hat, and bowed.
“For you, madame, I would be anyone you wanted.”
Her lips pursed into a smile as she studied me.
“I don’t want anyone, I want Laroch.”
“Then look no more, for you have found him.” I pulled a chair for her. “Would you do me the great honor of joining me?”
“I believe I will,” she said as she took the seat. “I have to say, you are not quite what I had expected...”
“Non?” I asked, with mock dismay. “What had you expected?”
“Well, I am looking for a bodyguard, so—”
“So you expected some lowly, unkempt, uneducated ruffian.” Needless to say, my garb was impeccable. And I take my personal hygiene quite seriously. “I hope you are not too disappointed.”
“Quite the contrary. However, it does make one wonder—”
Once again, I interrupted her... each time I did so, I noticed a twitch in her lips. She did not like to be cut off.
“I assure you madame that the appearance can only pale to the experience. I have learned my trade from the best. Now, tell me your troubles so I can determine whether to take your case.”
She tensed at my words.
“What? You would deny me?” She stood, anger creeping into her voice. “Do you know who I am?”
She clearly thought I did not. So I decided to clarify.
“Of course,” I said calmly. “You are Lady Marthe de Saint-Hermand, daughter of Count Victor, who is himself a distant cousin of our good king.”
The stunned expression on her face was priceless. She opened her mouth to answer, but I held up a hand to stop her as I continued, watching her mounting annoyance with amusement.
“But... you must understand, madame, that regardless of who you are, or even of how much you are willing to pay for my services, there are some jobs that are impossible to accomplish. This is why I always reserve the right to turn down an offer. But not before I hear the terms, of course.”
She remained silent for a moment, staring at me. After a deep breath, she finally sat back down.
“You are quite full of surprises, Sir Laroch. Very well, then.” She rubbed her wrist, looked down, set her hands flat on the table, reached up to scratch her neck. “I made a promise, long ago, that I can no longer keep.” She pressed her hands together and looked away from me. “I believe my life is now in danger. I need protection.”
Her eyes locked with mine, fierce and resolved. “That is none of your concern.”
“I beg to differ, madame. It would help enormously to know who I would be up against...”
“Could it sway your decision on whether to help me?”
I thought about this for a moment.
“Non, it would not. If your life is in danger, then it is my duty to protect it. So I will not press you further on this matter. However, understand that at some point, you will have to tell me more about your predicament.”
“Perhaps,” she whispered.
“Is there anything else that you are willing to tell me?”
“I am to be wed—”
“—to Count Robert de Laurincourt. I am aware.”
“You are well informed, Sir Laroch.”
“It is vital in my line of work, madame.”
She sighed. “I am to travel to meet him in his manor, where the wedding is to take place two weeks from now. I would like you to join my retinue. You would be handsomely rewarded, of course.”
“I never doubted it,” I said with a smile. “When shall we leave?”
The couple had not chosen the best season to celebrate their union. It was the middle of winter and though the sun shone brightly, it was freezing when we set off that morning.
But I was never one to complain. Give me adventure, give me a purpose, give me a group of joyful companions, and I will always enjoy the moment, no matter the circumstances.
Besides, it always is pleasant to be in the company of beauty... even one of such temperament.
Our little group—which was not so little—counted five personal servants, twelve guards, one cook, a magician, plus an assortment of pages, musicians, scullions, and other drudges. In all, counting the Lady Marthe and myself, there were thirty-six of us. Most were on horses, though the mistress and her servants traveled in a carriage. I rode beside it, keeping my eyes on the road and the countryside around us.
One thing for sure, we would not go unnoticed.
But the journey was, for the most part, uneventful.
There were only two incidents during the first half of our trip.
The first occurred on the second day, when the carriage rolled over a large rock and the wheel’s axle cracked and broke. It took several hours to fix. While some of the other men were working on that, the Lady Marthe took me aside and voiced her concern that this might have been an attempt on her life. I assured her I had inspected the damage myself and that there were no signs of foul play.
Two nights later, a pack of wolves attacked our camp. The guards and I fought them off, but three members of the retinue were killed—a page, a musician, and one of those who had valiantly stood by my side. We buried them then and there, and prayed for their souls.
We had been heading toward the mountains. The Laurincourt manor was on the other side, and we’d have to cross using a centuries-old trail that wound its way between the peaks. It was a cold, narrow, steep passage that would force us to travel one behind the other.
It was on the morning after the wolf attack that our party finally reached the trail. It had snowed all night, and though it now had stopped, the path had become cluttered with snow. We treaded our way through, weathered and wary. And up we went—slowly, but surely.
Three hours later, it started snowing again... and we had not even reached the halfway point. I kept glancing upward. Though I did not voice my concerns, I worried we would get caught in an avalanche. I kept asking my companions to keep their voices down, but it was no use.
One of the bards thought it a good idea to enliven our ordeal with his harmonious voice. While under any other circumstances I would have found that quite enjoyable, in the present condition it froze my heart. I would have run to reach the singer and ask him to stop, but the path was too narrow to allow such exercise.
It would not have helped, however, as the damage was already done.
The sound was low, at first. Like distant thunder, except it did not fade. Instead, it amplified.
“Everyone take cover!” I yelled. “Get down on the ground and try to hold on to something solid.”
I jumped off my horse and hurried to the carriage. Opening the door, I unceremoniously pulled out the lady Marthe and shoved her to the ground.
“What is going on?” she screamed.
I motioned for her servants to follow our example as I plunged toward a nearby tree stump, dragging my employer with me.
“Hold on tight to this! We’re going to get hit hard.”
She looked stunned but had enough sense to do as I’d said.
I tried not to think of our horses that were not likely to survive what was to come.
Many of our companions had followed my instructions, but panic was spreading fast through our party.
What happened next was quick and ruthless.
It hit us like a tidal wave of icy cold white. I felt it creep into my hair, my nose, my ears, my clothes... It was kissing me good morning and asking me to join it in a deep, painless sleep. I was tempted to accept the invitation, but I knew that if I did, I would never wake again. And that thought, in itself, was chilling enough to maintain me focused.
I kept my eyes shut and held on tight.
When the rumble finally stopped, I stood and shook the snow off of me, then dug out Marthe.
Others were starting to come out and we searched for more survivors.
We lost half our party that day. Among the disappeared were the magician, eight guards, four servants, and all of the musicians. The cook had survived, though his equipment had not. The carriage was also gone, as were the horses—except for one, that we heard neighing from further up the path.
Following the sound led us to a partially collapsed cave.
The horse was inside, staring at us with frightened eyes.
I caressed its muzzle and whispered in its ear to calm it down.
“What are we going to do?” asked Marthe in a panicked voice.
“We’re going to make a fire and warm up,” I said calmly.
“And then what?”
“And then, madame, we shall consider our options.”
Not that there were many.
We could either go on or go back.
But neither was looking good.
The trail, which had been difficult to follow from the start, was now impassable—in both directions.
“Hey guys, come look over here!”
It was one of the guards calling out—his name was Ferrick. He had wandered off toward the back of the cave.
Leaving the horse with one of the other men, I went to see what our friend had found.
There was a small opening there. It was dark inside, but warm.
“It’s narrow, but I think we could go through. Might be more comfortable than staying here... even with a fire.”
Ferrick was probably right. But would it be safe? That was my main concern.
So I grabbed a piece of wood and lit it up.
“Wait here,” I said as I slipped through the opening.
The difference in temperature was significant. But it was not just that.
It felt... different. I could not quite say why or how.
The new cave I was in was vast and remained quite dark, despite my improvised torch.
I took a few steps forward and stopped.
There was a huge precipice at my feet, and I had nearly walked off the edge into certain doom.
I lifted the light high above my head, and it sent shadows into the darkness. I waved it around and glanced across the cavern. There were various structures all around, made of a strange black substance I had never seen before. They came in various shapes and sizes. Further to my right was a ledge that extended far over the chasm—so far I couldn’t see the end of it.
As I approached to inspect it more closely, I heard distant sounds that echoed against the rocky walls. I could not have named those sounds, for they were not familiar to me. But perhaps I had imagined them.
The ledge was large and looked sturdy enough to take my weight. So I stepped on it. Nothing happened. I went on further and waved my torch around to look into the emptiness on either side. The darkness did not recede. I looked ahead of me and still could not see the end.
I paused and pondered.
It was Ferrick’s voice calling out. It echoed through the cave.
I turned and saw an approaching torch.
“I told you to wait...”
“Sorry, but I was too curious. Besides, it might not be safe to be out here on your own... Wow, what is this?”
He had just realized what I was standing on.
“I think it’s a bridge,” I said.
It was weird hearing all of our words echoing back at us. And a bit unsettling.
“A bridge? To where?”
I got off the ledge and headed back toward our group.
“We should discuss this with the others. Let’s go.”
“Are you mad?” asked Thorsen—the leader of the remaining guards—when I made my suggestion.
“Do you have a better idea?” snapped Marthe.
I was surprised that she’d side with me. I had expected her to resist the notion.
The guard frowned. “No, but—”
“Let’s face it,” I said, “the trail is blocked. In both directions. Plus, it’s freezing. Plus, we only have one horse left—and there are fifteen of us. Do you think we could go far, out there, on foot, under these conditions?”
Thorsen grimaced. “Still. We don’t know how far these caves go. There’s no evidence whatsoever that they’ll take us all the way through... aside from your hunch. And even assuming they do, it could be a maze for all we know. We could get lost or fall to our death in that chasm you found.”
“All this is true,” I agreed. “But look at it this way. We’d be risking our lives out there just as much. So... would you rather face danger in the cold, or in the warmth of these caves?”
Marthe did not let the guard respond. She stood and stomped her foot.
“This is not a debate. I’m still in charge here and I’ve made my mind. I am not going back out there. We will go with Sir Laroch’s plan.”
I knew exactly what Thorsen was thinking at that moment. That a petulant child was not really in charge, not when her own safety was in question—that, after all, was his business. But he chose not to speak his mind. Because, I suspected, he could not think of any valid argument to oppose me.
“Very well, milady,” he said. “I shall get the others ready.”
As we contemplated the abyss at our feet, I wondered why I was here.
There had been dangers, certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The Lady Marthe could have hired me to protect her from the perils of this journey... there had been no need to tell me about that broken promise. Her fear, then, had seemed genuine.
She was a beautiful woman. Perhaps she had given her heart to another man, one she could no longer love now that she was betrothed to another... Could the former lover feel so scorned as to wish her harm? It would not be the first time, I mused.
We had agreed to talk in whispers, and only when necessary. This was to avoid the echoes... not only did they grate on our nerves, but we feared to wake some creature that might lurk in the depths of this pit.
The bridge was large enough for three people to walk side by side, but we had decided to go by two—there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. There were no railings here, only dark deep emptiness—and bottomless, for all we knew.
The darkness was so stark, we could only see a few feet around us, even with our torches held high.
The silence was eerie, too.
Occasionally, we would hear a distant, deep rumble that would last a couple of minutes before slowly fading.
“Maybe it’s another avalanche,” said Ferrick in a low voice, though he didn’t sound convinced by his own suggestion.
No one commented as we continued to advance on the bridge.
The void felt like it was bottomless, but I knew this could not be, because there were large pillars that held up the ground we walked upon. We could see them come within sight at regular intervals. This, and the smoothness of their surfaces, made me wonder if this could all be man-made? It was a dizzying thought.
At one point, we reached a crossroad.
It was held by the largest pillar we had seen so far, and three other bridges set off from there.
We paused on the circular beam—it was large enough to accommodate all of us—and considered each new path.
“Now what?” asked Thorsen.
I held the torch as high as I could, glanced at the bridges, then at the pits above and under us.
“We should keep going straight ahead,” I finally said, after checking my compass. “At least that should keep us headed in the right direction.”
The distant rumble returned just as we resumed our walk. It made me cringe. There was something unnatural about that sound.
“You think it’s a monster?” I heard one of Marthe’s female servants ask in a whisper—you could hear even those in the absolute silence of these caves.
Though I did not comment—mainly because I did not want to add to the echoes—I did not feel like what we heard was coming out of a living creature.
It felt more... mechanical.
It was difficult to keep track of time when you were plunged into utter darkness. Though my senses told me we had been walking for over an hour when we reached the platform.
There was nothing there to distinguish it from the crossroad, aside from the fact that it rested at the top of an even larger pillar—this one must have been at least thirty square feet. There was only one way out this time, but we stayed there much longer.
One reason for this was that we needed to rest... and eat.
Another was that peculiar structures rose from the rocky floor.
While the cook prepared our meal, the three remaining guards and I approached and examined the constructions.
They were made from the same strange substance we had noticed before we started crossing the bridge. It was black and smooth and came in various shapes and sizes.
The one in particular that we contemplated was triangular. It felt warm under my fingers.
As I ran them across the surface, the distant rumbling rose again. I felt a vibration in the object. It also glowed and pulsed. The sound grew even louder, as if coming from within the structure—could it be some sort of sound conduit?
We all pulled away at the same time, as if repelled by the device—for I now felt certain that it was man-made.
“What is this place?” muttered Ferrick.
We ate in silence, though our eyes kept darting back to the black shapes.
One of the servants was especially intrigued and went to one of them after we were done eating and started rubbing her hand against its smooth surface.
“It’s warm,” her voice echoed in the void.
As we picked up our things and prepared to set off again, there was a clicking sound.
“Oh,” said the servant, “what’s this?”
I glanced in her direction.
A bulge had appeared on the dark surface. It was of a slightly lighter shade. Her hand hovered over it, then pressed down on it.
There followed a loud thud as the two edges of the platform suddenly sloped downward.
A concerto of screams echoed through the vast chamber as bodies fell to the ground, tumbled, and rolled off into the pit.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be at the center of the platform did not have to scramble for our lives. Instead, we held out our hands to grab those that were within our reach. Some were saved. Eight were not.
Among the disappeared were three servants, one guard, and two drudges. The horse also went with them.
Their terrorized cries resonated for a long time as they fell, growing more and more distant until finally, they faded into the silence.
The girl who had pressed the bulge was inconsolable. The guilt was gnawing at her. But I did not blame her. How could I when I knew that any of us could easily have made the same mistake? Curiosity is a ruthless beast.
Her sobs occasionally rang through the silence as we continued our quiet march.
It may have been another two hours before we finally reached the end of the bridge. A circular chamber that looked like a cave but felt more like a room, despite the stone walls.
“What is this place?” repeated Ferrick.
It was a smaller space, so his voice did not produce any echo—which was a nice change.
There were steps here, which led to another room.
It was there that we found him.
The creature was blue-skinned and translucent. Tall and thin. His skull bald and smooth. His eyes yellow and warm.
When we arrived, he spread his arms wide and smiled.
“Welcome!” his voice boomed. “Welcome to Goroganath! I am your host, Enkin.”
Martha blanched upon seeing the creature. She rushed to my side and hid behind my back, whispering into my ear with a trembling voice: “That’s him!”
This, perhaps, startled me more than anything else that had happened so far.
How could she know this being?
Was this the spurned lover?
“Who are you?”
“Where are we?” asked Thorsen at the same time.
“In my ship, of course!” responded Enkin. “It has laid dormant for fifteen years. But it is ready now to wake up...” His eyes turned to the trembling Marthe that stood behind me. “All I need is a promise kept.”
“Never!” she let out in a high-pitched yelp. “I told you it’s impossible!”
“You cannot behold her to a promise made when she was a child,” I said tentatively.
The creature frowned. “You will not betray me!” His voice rose, filling the cavern, so loud that we could hear it echo in the vast chamber beyond. “You must keep your word.”
“She is betrothed to another,” I started.
He blinked at me. “What?”
Marthe suddenly stepped away from me and stomped her foot. “I can not let you have my husband’s lands! Those are not mine to give!”
Both the creature and I stared at her and asked “What?” at the same time.
She went on as if she hadn’t heard us: “You can not ask a five-year-old to give you everything she has!”
“But,” Enkin started, “you were my friend...”
“Yes! And you were mine. And you took advantage of that. Shame on you! How could the child I was then know anything about the realities of adult life? I will not let you destroy everything I have!”
The translucent being seemed oddly unsettled now as he looked down. “You would have me die here, then?”
This time it was Marthe who asked a puzzled “What?”
Enkin pointed an accusing finger at her. “Don’t you see my ship is stranded? I cannot leave without your years!”
“What is going on?” I heard Ferrick ask.
His confusion was shared by us all, so I interrupted the blue man before he could say anything else.
“Hold on just one minute. It feels like we’re all talking about completely different things. How about we start from the beginning and you tell us what was promised and why?”
Both Marthe and Enkin stared at me.
“He made me promise,” she said accusingly, “that everything that was mine would always be his. I never realized at the time that when I married, that would of course include my husband’s lands. So when he sent word last month that he would soon come to collect, I wrote back to say I could no longer hold my promise. That was when I came to you, Sir Laroch.”
“You thought that’s what I wanted?” Enkin shook his head. “I don’t care about land. I want to leave. What would I do with human property?”
“What do you want, then?”
Enkin pointed at Marthe again. “Your years, of course.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I waited fifteen years, because that’s the exact amount I need to fuel my ship...”
“How does that even work?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s easy. She would just become a five-year-old child again.”
Marthe looked outraged by this. “That is out of the question!”
“But you promised!”
I remarked: “You cannot make someone promise to give you something without them knowing what it is that they are promising to give.”
“Why not?” he asked with a pout.
“You just can’t! And who are you, anyway?”
“I am Enkin,” his voice boomed again.
“Oui, oui, we know your name, but what are you?”
“I’m a spirit, of course, can’t you tell?”
“He used to be invisible,” whispered Marthe. “Only I could see him when I was a child.”
“I’ve spent too much time in this plane, so now I am becoming visible. That is not good. Not good at all.”
“There are multiple planes of reality. Some would phase through them on foot, but it is much quicker with a ship such as mine. You can go much further, too.”
“How does that even work?” I asked with a puzzled expression.
“It’s basic displacement... don’t you know anything?”
“Pretend I’m stupid.”
“You must be,” he snorted. “Well. Take this location. We are inside a mountain, right? The earth and rocks that were here originally have been replaced by my ship, while the space where my ship previously was has been replaced by all that pile of earth and rocks. Displacement, see?”
“What if someone was walking in that spot when the mountain appeared?” asked Thorsen.
“Ouch,” Enkin grimaced. “I’m afraid there wouldn’t be much left of them. You’d need a spoon to pick up what’s left,” he laughed, then made a dismissive gesture. “But no need to worry. That almost never happens!”
“We’re getting sidetracked,” I said. “So you need years to get your ship started?”
“Yes. Hers!” he pointed at Marthe again.
The young woman crossed her arms and frowned, making very clear how she felt about that idea.
“Because she promised!”
“Forget about that for a moment. Is there a particular reason why it has to be her?”
“Well... no. But she was the only one who could see and hear me.”
“Does it have to be the years of a human?”
He blinked. “What?”
“Couldn’t you just take the years of an animal? Or of a tree?”
Enkin stared at me.
Then he started pacing angrily, mumbling to himself.
“What an idiot I am. So much time wasted. I can’t believe this!” He walked up to the wall and started banging his head against it repeatedly. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid... Argh!”
We all looked at each other in disbelief.
He came back to us, his forehead now a darker blue.
“I could have been gone from this dreadful place the very same day I arrived! What an absolute moron I am!” He groaned, then looked at Marthe. “Fine. You are relieved of your promise. You may all go. I need to go find myself a tree.”
He turned to leave. I coughed.
“Uhm, wait a second. Could you show us the way out to the other side? Your ship is a bit of a maze for us...”
Enkin hmphed, shrugged, and motioned quietly for us to follow him.
As we walked, I asked if he had anything to do with us getting into his ship.
“Of course,” he mumbled irritably. “You don’t think anyone could just walk in here, do you? The ship has top-notch security. At least, it’s supposed to. But I’m such an imbecile, so who the hell knows? Maybe I forgot to lock the back door.”
He obviously was in a foul mood, so we all fell quiet.
With a tap against a wall, a panel slid open, revealing a metallic conduit. He stepped inside and we followed, hesitantly.
As soon as we had all entered, the panel slid shut and the floor under our feet began to move.
Enkin ignored that and walked on. We followed as the ground moved faster and faster.
We went through a series of shimmering fields of hot air. Each time, it was accompanied by a swooshing sound.
“What’s that?” dared to ask Ferrick.
Enkin shrugged. “Spatial gates. They help move us quicker. Then again, maybe I misunderstood. I’m such a total cretin, who the heck knows?”
We fell quiet again and let the moving corridor carry us.
It did not take long for us to reach our destination in this fashion.
A new panel opened, letting us out into another cavern-like room.
From there, we went up a flight of steps and arrived at a large black door. It looked like it was made from the same substance as the strangely shaped structures we had seen throughout the ship.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Netherchalk, of course,” he said distractedly as he pressed the palm of his hand against the cold, black surface. “Not something you would find in the realm of men,” he added. “Unless, of course, this nitwit has failed to understand the simple basics of human geology.”
The door opened on a snow-covered trail. It was larger than the one we had taken on the other side. But it was the biting cold that took me by surprise. I had forgotten all about winter while in the warmth of the spirit’s ship.
I coughed. “Right. Well. Thank you for showing us the way. And good luck with your return trip.”
“Thanks,” he muttered as he looked right and left. “No trees here, of course. Gonna have to go back down. In this weather. Stupid, stupid me. Could have done this comfortably in the summer. But nooooo... I had to be dumb enough to wait fifteen years for a human... GAH!”
He slammed the door shut behind us and we found ourselves, once again, alone in the snow.
We lost three more members of our party on the way down—including Thorsen.
At the foot of the mountain, we found a small village where we purchased new horses. With these, we reached our destination in time, though only four of us made it to Count Robert de Laurincourt’s manor—Ferrick, the cook, Marthe, and me.
I stayed for the wedding.
It was a beautiful event.
Though Marthe had sadness in her eyes throughout the whole day.
“What is wrong, madame?” I asked when I was able to talk to her alone.
She sighed. “You’re going to think I’m silly, but... I miss my old friend.”
For a moment, I thought she meant one of the servants who had died, but then I realized she was referring to Enkin himself.
“He was important to you when you were a child, oui?”
She nodded. “My parents were never home. And I did not have many friends. It is difficult to make any when you are a noble living in a palace.”
I did not bother to point out that there must have been children among the servants—I had a fairly good sense of what she would have thought of that.
“He was my only friend,” she went on. “He was there for me when I needed him. And I couldn’t even pay him back.”
I stared at her. “You can’t be serious!”
“And why not? My life was much easier when I was a child...”
“You just said you didn’t have any friends.”
“Well, that’s true, but being an adult is so complicated!”
“You’re doing just fine,” I said with a smile.
Her husband came then and whisked her away for a dance.
I left shortly after that.
And though I’ve often heard stories of Lady Marthe’s life, and the children she’s had, our paths never crossed again.
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Text (c) 2022 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: a photograph of my brother as Laroch + royalty-free stock images, all edited by me.
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Whelp. Can’t say I was expecting aliens, or “spirits”, in this story. But like we talked about before, different worlds can have different levels of technology while still being in the same universe.