Evelyn and the Stranger
Once upon a time, in the village of Baren Falls, there lived a pretty young milkmaid, Evelyn by name. She was the fairest of all her sisters, with hair like spun flax and skin like wintr'y cream, and every red-blooded farmer's son in the village longed to marry her, though she never deigned to look at a single one of their eager, hopeful faces. Evelyn preferred her own council, and although this worried her mother and father greatly, there was nothing they could do about it but hope she changed her mind someday. They had three other daughters and three other sons to worry about, you see, and could not spare extra concern for Evelyn, beautiful though she was.
Each year there was an autumn fair held in Doma, half a day's ride to the south, and each year Evelyn's family would attend, to sell apples and cheeses and other produce from the farm. However, a few days before they were set to leave for the festivities, an axle broke on her father's wagon, and it seemed as though there would be no market this season - and worse yet, no money to sustain them through the cold winter ahead. Things seemed quite hopeless until someone suggested that Evelyn could take her milk-cart and at least sell the cheeses and the cider - a little coinage was better than none, after all.
It was settled. Early the next morning Evelyn loaded the cart with wheels of cheese as round and orange as the harvest moon and set off down the Great Road for Doma, the fare-thee-wells of her parents and siblings ringing fresh in her ears. It was a long, dusty path to the city, and a hot one, but Evelyn's cart-chocobo was a fast bird, and they made good time. By noon-tide she was hawking her wares outside the Doman gate and doing quite well at it; not a man passed her cart without taking at least an appreciative glance at the maid, and many more stopped and bought cheeses whether they needed them or not. Greybeards came away feeling young again; brash youths left with a spring in their step and a song in their heart. Before the sun had sunk halfway behind the balustrades of the castle, almost all the produce was gone, and Evelyn's money-bags were bulging and jangling with gold pieces.
Pleased with her good fortune, Evelyn took a bottle of leftover cider and drank it underneath the shade of a nearby oak tree, for the day had been warm and her thirst was powerful. The soughing of the wind through the branches above her lulled the girl into a doze, and as she dozed it seemed the tree whispered a song of warning in her ear:
Evelyn, Evelyn, white as snow,
'Ware the man on the black chocobo!
His eyes are red, his cloak is sable,
Run far and fast if thou art able!
But when she woke she did not remember it.
Upon her awakening Evelyn realized she had slept far longer than she had meant to - the first stars were beginning to appear in the sky and the marketplace was almost emptied of people. Knowing she too should take her leave and return to her family in Baren Falls, Evelyn rose and walked back to where her chocobo and cart were tethered, intending to turn homeward. But alas! While she slumbered some knave had made off with bird, buggy, and bullion, leaving nothing behind but a few apple-cores and the rind of a half-gnawed cheese. When she came to understand what had occurred, the poor bereft girl fell to her knees in the dirt and cried piteously, alone, stranded, and unsure of what to do.
With no gil left for an inn and no other recourse left to her, Evelyn set out to walk home along the Great Road, dark though it was. She was stout of heart and brave enough for such a young maiden, make no mistake of that, but every sparrow longs to be home in its nest when the sun goes to bed, and Evelyn was no different. The shadows became faint across her path, the sky grew darker up above, and strange things began to flit and dart through the roadside reeds, insubstantial in the dim starlight. A low autumn wind moaned in the tops of the trees; to Evelyn it sounded like the voice of one long dead, hoarsely groaning 'Waaaaaaaaare! 'Waaaaaaaaaaaare! 'Waaaaaaaaaare!
From the darkness a nightjar fluttered, alighting on Evelyn's shoulder. Before she could even make a noise in surprise the bird began to sing to her in sweet, liquid notes:
Evelyn, Evelyn, canny lass,
Beware the rider, should he pass!
His chocobo is swift and black,
The Devil rides astride its back!
"Little bird, I don't understand," said Evelyn, confused and frightened. "What manner of man-beast do you sing of? Is he near? However do you know these things?"
But the nightjar did not speak again. It flew back into the night without another word, leaving Evelyn alone once more in the middle of the road. She shuddered and continued on, faster than before.
The woods on either side of the path began to thicken as the girl progressed, the tree-branches interlacing overhead to block out what little illumination the stars cast. Evelyn could not remember passing through a forest that morning, but she had little choice but to keep walking, praying the wrong fork had not been taken along the way. Soon she was traveling through complete darkness, unable to see more than a stone's throw ahead. The trees around her seemed almost insubstantial; they moved and wavered in a most disconcerting fashion, like water-weeds at the bottom of a mill-pond. Sometimes she thought she saw grey figures drifting amongst them, beckoning to her with long, bony fingers, but when she looked directly at them they always disappeared.
Just when Evelyn feared she might go mad, she came to a crossroads where the woods cleared and light fell through a gap in the canopy. The moon had risen while she walked under the trees; its watery gleam showed a fork in her path, but she was quite sure there had been no crossroads here during the day when she had passed previous. Evelyn was sore afraid then, for she realized the entire forest must be under an enchantment. Not a bird or a cricket had chirped since she passed underneath its boughs - the only noises were the rustling of the wind and, occasionally from far off, the eerie sound of a steam engine whistling as it made its journey to destinations unknown.
There was another sound, too. It took Evelyn a moment to identify it, but eventually she realized what it was. A rider was coming down the left fork at a swift clip, the scratch-slap of the chocobo's claws on the trail beating a rhythmic tattoo through the silent night. Evelyn thought of running and hiding, but the traveler was moving much too fast, and the idea of darting off the path into those ever-shifting trees vexed her far more greatly than meeting a stranger. She stood rooted to the ground, awaiting whatever was to come. Soon enough the rider appeared - a handsome man in a long, fluttering cloak of darkest sable, astride a chocobo cob of enormous size and speed. The ground seemed to shrink away from its talons; Evelyn was almost trampled underneath them herself before the chocobo's owner saw her and swerved to miss, turning his mount around to circle the cowering girl in one smooth motion.
"Hello! And where are you going, my pretty lass?" the rider said, reining his bird in beside her. He was great of stature, with hair black as a raven's wing and eyes that glowed like coals in the moonlight. "Why do you travel this road so late at night, with such an expression of worry? Has a highwayman stolen your mount?"
"N-nay, my good sir, that is not the case at all," Evelyn replied, somewhat mollified by the man's good manners and better looks. "Some knave took my bird, my cart, and all my gil in Doma-town whilst I napped, and I set out to return to my home in Baren Falls astride shanks' cob. Do you know the way? For I fear I have become ensnared in this wood and cannot find the path out without assistance."
The rider smiled. He seemed to have a great deal many more teeth than was usual, white and pointed like ivory daggers. "I will do you one better, lovely maid. Down this fork lies my home, and in my home there are many empty bedrooms, any one of them more than suitable for a maiden such as yourself. You may stay the night, and in the morning I will carry you to Baren Falls myself, for it is still a considerable distance north of these woods, and to have a mademoiselle of such surpassing beauty walking the roads alone at such a late hour would not do at all. Will you accept my offer, and ride with me?" He proffered his hand, a massive thing with long, slender fingers that curled inward like claws.
Now, not even the most pious priest is immune to the charms of flattery, and Evelyn was but a humble milkmaid - she stood no chance against this mysterious stranger with his hypnotic eyes and serpent's tongue. Within moments she had given assent and was astride the great black chocobo behind him, gripping tightly at the man's cloak as they sped back down the leftmost fork into the heart of the forest.
The stranger lived in a great manor house, hemmed in on all sides by impenetrably thick woods. It was a massive, labyrinthine structure, with so many wings and corridors Evelyn's head was set a-whirl. Her companion knew his way around, though, and showed her to a room for the night with the same grace and poise he had radiated back on the road. He called himself Lord Highwind, said that he was a retired soldier, and apparently lived in the dusty old castle all by himself, having no wife or children to speak of. His charm was irrepressible, his looks and manners impeccable. Before Evelyn knew what was happening she was completely enamored of her rescuer; when he kissed her hand in farewell at the doorway to her chambers and left her for the night, he went with the maiden's heart in his pocket. How witty and urbane he was! Quite unlike the boys of the village, silly smitten simpletons every one.
Nothing disturbed Evelyn's slumber until the next morning, when she awoke and somehow managed to find her way downstairs to the breakfast table. It was lined with plate upon plate of delightful things to eat - roast apples, pastries liberally frosted with marzipan, pies of such deepness they seemed almost bottomless, and stone pitchers of milk, their cool surfaces beaded with frosty condensation. The air was heavy with the aroma of all these delights, the sweet cinnamon odor of fresh, butter-laden oatmeal and the tangy scent of cider mixing with the fragrance of newly-baked bread and roasted nuts. Evelyn's mouth watered at the sight and smell of this amazing bounty, and she wondered to herself how Lord Highwind managed to come by it all with no chefs to tend the stoves and stir the porridges.
He sat at the head of the long table with a cup of steaming amber cider in one hand, and when he saw Evelyn he smiled his pointed smile and beckoned her to the feast. She declined, however, reminding him of the promise he had made to take her home the night previous. Her family would be most worried, she said; they would probably be out searching the roads between Baren Falls and Doma at this very moment. While she appreciated his hospitality graciously, would he be so kind as to take her home, if it wasn't too much bother?
"Alas, my dear, I fear you may have to wait for the morrow," was the lord's reply, a look of sheepish embarrassment marring his fine features. "My bird sprained his hock quite badly on the road last eve and is confined to stable until it heals, so I'm afraid there is no possible way we can make the trip as early as today. I give you my word, though, as soon as he is sound once more I will return you to your family with all the swiftness I can muster. Now please" - the irresistible grin returned as if it had been lying in ambush waiting for this moment - "eat?"
Evelyn received this news with some dismay but consented to sit and sup with her host, his pleasant charms and the sumptuous spread before her doing much to placate the unease stewing at the back of her mind. Another day or two wouldn't hurt - it would give her a better chance to get to know this strangely alluring gentleman, after all. There was certainly nothing wrong with that.
She decided to make the best of the situation and spent much time with Lord Highwind over the next few days. They took their meals together, went for long walks in the evenings, and sat side by side in the parlor late at night, discussing all manner of things. Always something came up to keep her from returning home - a busted saddle, a fallen tree in the road, chores to be taken care of around the grounds that could not wait - but as days passed into months and Evelyn came to know her companion better, the girl's desire to leave his side waned and eventually vanished entirely. She grew to love him, and he her.
It was not entirely unexpected, then, that he presented her one day with a ring. Equally unsurprising was Evelyn's response; she took the pretty ruby and the promise it implied with tears of joy. The memory of her family back in Baren Falls faded more and more from the infatuated lass's mind, replaced with images of a happy future in the arms of her lord. She would have been the happiest girl on the Eastern Continent - and for the most part she was - but for one or two nagging worries that itched and niggled and tickled at her mind, like insect bites she couldn't quite reach.
Lord Highwind had given her the run of the manor since the day she arrived. She was free to go where she liked and explore the echoing, cobwebby expanse of his mansion to her heart's content, from vast attic to loam-smelling wine cellar. There was only one exception to this rule: the locked chamber on the westernmost wing of the house was never, never to be entered by her, under absolutely any circumstance. He kept the brass key that opened the huge oaken-paneled door on a ribbon around his neck, and in her entire tenure there Evelyn could not remember a time when he had ever taken it off. It was infinitely precious to her lover, and she could not help but be curious as to why.
There was one other restriction as well, equally puzzling and seemingly arbitrary to the maiden. Once a month, when the moon was at its fullest, Lord Highwind would leave the house on unspecified business. When he went on these mysterious late-night outings he forbade Evelyn to follow him or even set foot outside the mansion until the sun came up and he returned. The dark man would not explain why but assured her it was for the best; having no reason to doubt him, she obeyed without question or dissent. She loved Lord Highwind deeply, and wanted nothing more than to please him, strange as his requests may have seemed.
Still, love cannot completely dampen the fires of curiosity once they are stoked, no matter how many good intentions may be thrown on the bonfire to smother its flames. Evelyn battled the blaze as well as she could, but eventually the conflagration rose up and consumed her.
It happened late one winter evening, when the hunter's moon was at its apex throwing clammy white light through all the windows of the manor house. Lord Highwind had gone out some time before and left Evelyn to fend for herself in the yawning, moonlit halls, bidding her farewell with a chilly kiss on the forehead - his lips were often cold, as if the blood could not or would not be forced into them - and a saucy wink of one vermilion eye. She wandered the corridors for some time after he left, looking for something to entertain her and distract from the silence, but on this eve the house was as full of life and warmth as a mausoleum, and her search was in vain. The restless bride was just about to give up and return to her chambers for the night when she found herself in front of the locked door on the westernmost wing, as mysterious and alluring and tantalizing as it had been all those other times she stood in front of it pondering the mysteries that lay behind its panels.
The difference between those times and this occasion, however, was great, and all because of one startling change - the brass key still lay snugly in the lock, its ribbon trailing almost to the floor. Evelyn stood staring at it in shock for a long while, torn between fleeing to her chambers and forgetting she had ever seen the accursed thing, or staying and turning the bolt. Lord Highwind had made her swear on their love she would never unlock that room, and yet ... and yet how would he ever know if she were to sneak a quick peek inside while he was busy elsewhere? What would it hurt? Her overpowering desire to know that corridor's secrets would be sated, and he would be none the wiser. It seemed the only sensible thing to do, really. The more she thought about it, in fact, the more sensible it became.
Before she could change her mind, Evelyn's hand had snaked forward and given the key a vicious twist. The bolt groaned and muttered and eventually clicked open with a rusty mutter of protest.
Evelyn turned the handle, stepped inside, and screamed until her voice was raw and hoarse.
From rafters to floor the entire hall was filled with the hanging remains of women, skewered and dangling like the unfortunate victims of a gamekeeper's gibbet. Some were still whole, some had been halved and quartered and hung not unlike slabs in a butcher shop's front window, and a few looked as if they had exploded from the inside, nothing left of them but red, shredded strips of meat. The marble tiles were stained with red, the walls painted and splattered in great crimson washes. An overpowering reek of decaying blood and rotting flesh rose from the charnel house; Evelyn gagged and choked at the smell, desperately trying not to retch. She dropped her lantern and ran from the scene as fast as she could manage, unable to think of anything but escape.
The marble was chilly under her bare feet, the frosty grass outside far colder. The poor frightened maid burst from the manor-house focused only on survival, long cornsilk hair flowing behind her in a comet's tail. She was making for the stables in the hopes she could steal a mount when the sound of a hunting horn cut through the night, high and shrill and commanding. Evelyn paused at the noise, glanced upwards, and immediately froze, dropping to her knees in awestruck terror.
Massive shadows were moving through the sky, wreathed in a bank of boiling clouds. They blotted out the stars and were so impossibly large Evelyn's mind could not comprehend their scale. As they came closer she saw that they were riders, each astride a chocobo far bigger than any mortal bird had any right to be, all of them inhuman. One was a black and white cat, all four sets of claws splayed out to maintain his seat in the saddle. Another was a fire jinn with hair that crackled and blazed and trailed sparks in his wake. Several of them looked like women, but women of such supernatural, radiant beauty it would have broken mortal men's hearts to merely glance upon their faces. A unicorn and a stag and a great boar of immense proportions raced alongside the hunt, keeping up easily with the other riders.
At the head of the pack rode their leader, a great black dragon with eyes that glowed as redly as the ruby on Evelyn's finger. His beak was curved and cruel, his wingspan so great it covered the moon. Around his neck he wore a hunting horn of ivory, which sometimes he would raise to his mouth and blow. Before Evelyn could even begin to collect her senses and run for cover, the dragon's keen eyes had spotted her. The entire covey swept down out of the sky and landed before the quaking girl, their fractious mounts snorting embers and smoke.
The dragon stretched out his long neck until his head, roughly as large as Evelyn's father's barn, was but a foot from her face. His eyes, wheel-sized orbs of smouldering red, looked almost pained as he gazed upon her cowering figure.
"Alas," rumbled he in a voice like thunder, "I would have loved you until the seas bent and magic disappeared from this mortal world. I would have made you an immortal queen and given you everything you desired, but like my other foolish wives you broke your word and betrayed my heart. I love you still, Evelyn, but you lied, and so you shall share their fate."
So quick did she start under the noses of the surrounding gods they were quite taken by surprise, and this moment of hesitation was all Evelyn needed to survive. Like a hare bolting from its form she fled, the wild hunt pressing at her heels on their monstrous mounts. Swiftly she made for the tangled web of the woods, and through either sheer luck or fate managed to make it moments before her pursuers, losing them momentarily in the dark shadow of the trees. She could hear the sound of their wings far above the canopy as they searched, the wind they made whipping the branches until leaves fluttered down in a shower to the forest floor below.
Evelyn moved with a stealth she had not known she was capable of. Through the briars and the knots of vine she glided, unaware of her destination but quite sure that moving far and fast away from the dragon's manor was a splendid idea. The girl made it some distance in this fashion, dashing from trunk to trunk. She left the flapping of great wings far behind, and was soon overjoyed to see the road stretching out before her through the clustered trees. Throwing caution to the winds, Evelyn mustered all the speed she had left and dashed for the path, ignoring the fact that she had to cross a large clearing in the forest growth to do so.
She never noticed the shadow falling over her until it was too late. A set of claws several sizes larger than Evelyn's body bore her to earth, pinning her struggling form against the loam as helpless as a babe. Twin sets of ruby eyes peered down at her. Twin gusts of brimstone-tinged breath from great scaly nostrils blew her fair hair back in a cloud around her shoulders and face. The dragon gave Evelyn a final sad look and, without a word, began to press down upon her breast with one sharp claw, slicing through the flimsy nightshift she wore as if it were made of wet parchment.
Somehow, with grim death bearing down upon her, pressing the very air from her lungs, Evelyn managed to speak.
"Stop! Stop, for the love of the Goddesses!" she cried, struggling for the breath to continue. "I carry your bairn in my belly! "
And all at once there was silence.
The dragon recoiled as if the mortal girl he had pinned beneath his claws were made of deadly poison. He stared down at her with a mixture of disbelief and awe, brows furrowed as only a dragon could furrow them.
"... But ... that's impossible," he muttered after some time, more to himself than to Evelyn. "Never have an Esper and a mortal woman ... "
"But it is true," came the reply, shaky and almost defiant. "Can you not sense it yourself?"
He studied her form once more, and a dawning realization broke over his face - a realization and a resignation. Without another word the great black dragon drew back, pushing the girl to her feet and away.
"Go," said he, "Run fast. And don't look back. They will be coming."
She didn't look back.
A herdsman on his way to market found her stumbling along the road, feet bloodied and bruised from briars and rocks. He carried her home in his wagon and there she was joyously reunited with her family, who had given her up for dead months and months earlier. At first they did not believe Evelyn's incredible story, thinking her in shock from exposure or trauma, but when they saw the girl's swelling belly and the ruby on her finger they had no more reason to doubt her word.
Her father and three brothers led a contingent of armed citizens to the manor-house, but the place was deserted and appeared to have been so for some time. The woods that surrounded it had disappeared; where trees and thick underbrush had once grown there was now nothing but grass rippling in the wind. One bit of good did come out of the expedition, though - in a locked vault underneath the stables they found a vast hoard of gold coins, more than enough to keep Evelyn and her family wealthy for the rest of their days. They moved into the abandoned mansion and lived there quite happily raising apple trees and chocobos, both of which were renowned for being particularly fine stock across the Eastern Continent in later years.
Evelyn's babe was born without incident, as handsome and normal-looking a son as one could hope for. He showed no signs of being particularly special as he grew, save for his eyes, which were maroon, and his ability to jump, which was prodigious. The boy leapt for the sky as if he were trying to reach up and grasp the stars; he may have borne his father's surname and not his wings, but when he sprang away from earth and hovered in the air, one could almost forget that fact for a moment and believe he could fly.
The boy eventually grew into a man, passing his strange abilities and the name of his sire down onto his own offspring. They became renowned as great warriors in latter days, but that is a story for another time. As for his mother ...
She never remarried, did Evelyn the fair. She watched her son grow up with a mother's pride, broke chocobos and pressed cider, and lived the remainder of her life quietly, saying little but seeing much. Sometimes late at night they would find her standing in the fields staring up at the stars, idly twisting the ruby ring on her finger. Why she gazed at the heavens so sadly, though, the good woman would never say.
All That Glitters Is Cold 4 Fanfic Competition
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