THE DARK TOWER
Excerpt from The Black Fox Chronicles
Astrid’s ear caught a sound on the wind. He glanced at the sky. His eye could see clearly through the darkness, invisible colors that could only be seen by a trained man. Secret colors that belong to the night and to Astrid alone. He removed his hood and lifted his head to the sky.
He stretched his arms out, parallel with his broad shoulders. He closed his eyes and dove deep into the change he had made a hundred times. His body became calm and relaxed into the familiar shape. His instincts began to shift, twisting and turning until he could feel the very tips of his fingers. No, not fingers. Wings. Broad-wings, lined with black and dark blue feathers; he could feel every one of them.
His good eye changed from dark brown to piercing yellow, but his fog eye remained. His vision cleared and he could now see every detail that stretched across the endless plains. The moonlight hitting the crystal snow made the blood of his enemies glow vibrant with color. He spread his wings loosely and let out a cry from his sharp, pointed beak, as the snowstorm grew more intense. The transformation was complete. Focus.
Astrid the Black Fox now saw the wind as silver and dark swirls sweeping the northern plains. Driving his claws deep into the earth, he spread his wings and lifted from the ground, powering through the sky, leaving the disfigured bodies and plunder behind. He flew through the branches of the scattered trees and his yellow eye peered over the White Plains. The crow turned and twisted and caught the sharp northern wind.
Astrid cut through the snowstorm that was now raging full force. The heavy snow crackled as he dove towards the ground. He spread his wings broad and glided through the thick quilt of white. As he flew, he listened to the echoes of the moon wolves in the distance. He glanced at the high peaks of mountains, their stone glistening in the moonlight peeking out from between the clouds. Norf flew overhead, his white wings riding the moonlight. The hawk cried out, joining in the song of the moon wolves.
Astrid headed towards the tower built into the side of the mountain that looked over the sparkling frozen plains. He landed on the railing and leaped down onto the stone balcony. He shook his feathered head and felt the ice fly off, but the ice from the continuing storm quickly covered him again. A flash of lightning lit the sky blue and purple overhead. Warm flesh began to strap on his bones and Astrid’s dark feathers disappeared. He stood tall in the storm and listened to the thunder shout. He shuddered, but only a little. From the tower, he could look out over the groves and slopes of the mountains. He saw dozens of small lights radiating from the mountain towns. One by one the lights went out until the landscape was completely dark.
Astrid stepped inside the tower and felt relief from the storm, but the darkness of the inside troubled him. It was cold and unwelcoming. Not too different from the abandoned forts and towers of the far north. The torches that lined the walls were long burnt out. The stones that made up the wall were crooked from years and years of the foundation slowly shifting. He could hear the sound of spider birds in the rafters above.
He breathed in the dark, cold air and felt it stab his lungs. His hand rested loosely on the hilt of Sleep and his thumb traced over the pale gem. He ignored the burning pain that always came with transformation, as his blood quickly rushed back through his veins. The air was dry and dead, filled with a fearful chill that marked the dark tower.
The room in which he stood was empty with broken pieces of furniture scattered across the floor. Inside, the old fireplace contained nothing but ash and pieces of half burnt wood, the smell of burnt wood still lingering. He glanced up at a faded banner draped over a wooden beam. The edges of the banner were ragged and the entire thing was covered with greasy dust and bat droppings. The emblem was faded and unreadable and loose threads twisted in the cold air that crept in through the hidden cracks of the old fortress which had been an ancient stronghold of the ancient rulers whose names had been forgotten.
The rest of the dark tower would light up with each lightning strike in the skies. Hail now joined with the relentless snow, beating against the stone. Astrid listened to the sounds as he started up the stairs, their spiraling narrowness grabbing at his shoulders. Tiptoeing in silence, he could hear the occasional loose stone moved by his boots as they made their way up the narrow steps.
Astrid came to the top of the staircase and heard the sound of small feet as the rats ran from the stranger invading their home. He approached a door hanging crookedly from its hinges. The wood was old and dark from water damage but smelled strong of cedar. He pressed the door open, hearing the soft creaking moan of rusted hinges. The room inside was quiet and empty.
He set his sword against the stone wall and took off his sachet. Before long, he had a fire going in the stone fireplace. The light from the fire flickered and cast shadows on the floor and walls. He drew his hunting blade and started to skin the moon rabbit he had caught. Little meat was on the animal, but it would do.
Norf flew from the window and landed near the fire, the majestic bird’s blue eyes dancing in the firelight. The fire spit and flamed, wrapping around the body of the moon rabbit. Astrid took out his pipe and inhaled a deep whiff. He hummed a song, keeping his eye on the flames.
Fire come, fire go, fire in the night.
Being small, being alone, many reasons for fright.
Crawling high, crawling low, crawling in the night.
Whisperling sing, whisperling come, many reasons for fright.
On either side of the grand fireplace were two bookshelves that stretched up to the ceiling. The shelves which once held books held nothing but dust now. Books held secrets, history and power; all of that was forgotten now.
The fireplace was roaring and alive with flames. Astrid eyed Norf the bird, who was staring at him. The only one who knew his secret. But that wasn’t true. There was one other who did. The man he had watched die. The man he couldn’t save. His teacher.
Astrid bit into the sweet meat of the moon rabbit. He took off a piece and fed it to Norf, the hawk eating it graciously. This was hardly a feast, but it would have to do for now. He glanced out the window, watching the snow thicken and the sky grow darker. He would get fresh supplies when he made his way into the slope town tomorrow.
He stared at the snow. Something lingered in the night. It crawled up his spine and sunk into his flesh like a silver knife. Something dark. Something silent.
Astrid finished his meal and threw the bones into the fire. He took off his black cloak and tunic, the whip scars on his back glistening from the orange flames.
Astrid glanced down at his forearm, the center scarred with a brand, a triangle piercing into a circle. Flashes of hot iron and burning flesh passed over him. The sound of his screaming echoing through the chambers of his mind as the dark memories came crashing together like the sea.
The Black Fox stared into the fire, the orange flames reflecting in his dead eye. He watched the flames char the bones to black, his thoughts drifting to his past. He pulled his eyes away from the fire and sat down on the stone. He drew his knife and scraped the blade against the whetstone. He drowned out the dark memories with the sound of his low voice.
Settle down low, fire come, fire go.
Settle down low, shadows there, shadows here.
Settle down low, fire burn, fire bright.
Settle down low, darkness rise, darkness fall.
He caught the rhythm of his sharpening. Astrid ceased and glanced out the window into the storm.
“You sense something,” Astrid said. Norf tilted his white head. “Something lurking.” Norf opened his beak, making no sound but his message was clear enough. Something black was out there. Something dark. Something that swallowed men whole and spat out their bones. Astrid breathed heavily. Suddenly, the dark feeling was gone.
Astrid sheathed his knife, lay against his pack and closed his eyes. He dove into a world of blackness. He heard voices of song, voices of death, voices of blood and of fire. He saw faces he knew, men he had killed and the cruel torture of a young boy who didn’t know any better than to trust a man who had saved him. Crows are not weak. Crows do not feel fear. The images drowned out in the darkness of his dreams but in his nightmares, the only thing Astrid the Black Fox could not escape was fear. Fear of the ghosts that followed him with every step and every breath he took.
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