Mark was crawling on the floor, peering under chairs and tables, and cursing under his breath. Two stupid things: first he'd suggested Troek try the ring, and then he'd allowed it to get lost while Troek was helpless. The floor was fairly clean, as tavern rooms go, but there was a litter of pipeweed ashes, tinder twigs, and, mostly, clods of dried mud and leaves, in any of which a small ring could be hiding.
He barely took note of Felter's warning, <<Ghost!>> and scrambled to his feet just in time to see Fawn appear beside their table again.
Standing where he was, he watched the spook give something to Troek. After a moment, Troek turned to him, holding a ring aloft. "Mark, I've got it." Then she turned back to Fawn, talking to her as calmly as one would to a mortal.
When Fawn disappeared, this time not bothering with walking between the tables and chairs, and Troek turned to him, asking, "Mark, who was that?" he pulled himself together. He returned to their table, sat, and took a long draught from his mug, draining it to the dregs.
"Sera!" he called, and looked for her to appear in the door by the bar. When she did, he waved his mug in the air, and she nodded and disappeared again. Now he felt ready to deal with reality again.
"She told me that she is Fawn. I happen to be told that she is a ghost. Where I come from, ghosts are terrible wraiths, doomed to wander the Earth for the rest of existence, and apt to wreak terrible deeds on us mortals. They do not like being interfered with, so when I saw her serving you drink, I made no comment, not wanting to upset what all here seemed to accept. Now it seems that Fawn is in fact no danger, but I'm having a hard time coming to terms with a ghost, all the same.
"I've encountered a ghost, once. I make no idle comments when I say that experience took years from my life."
Mark looked at his hands, still holding his empty mug. He put the mug back on the table and turned his eyes on Troek.
"It had been a few months since that one-eyed man gave me his sword, and I was still learning my new rok. I had just left the employ of a merchant's caravan, my pocket full of silver and a new horse between my legs in the bargain - ah, sometimes the Norns will smile on us! - and was making my way back along the caravan's route. Night was falling, and there was an old ruin along the way where I thought to seek shelter. I guided my horse along a ravine that ran up the side of this hill, at the top of which were the walls I was looking for. Reaching the walls, I hobbled the horse in a patch of mature rye grass, covering it with a blanket against the morning dew, and examined the ruins.
"They weren't much to look at. Once they must have been an imposing pile of stones, probably the redoubt of a robber baron who sought tribute from any who traveled by. Now, however, they served as little more than a wind break, weeds growing from their crumbling mortar. I saw no entry just there, and made my way around. The light was fading, and I hoped to start a small fire for warmth, but wanted a nook within these walls for it.
"A few paces further I found a gap in the wall. A tree, at its time probably a giant of those forests, had toppled and breached the stone work. Shrubs and grasses were growing in the opening, and I climbed over them to enter the ruins. Inside, the wreckage was much worse than without. The roof had been covered with fired clay tiles, and when the weight had become too much for the rotting beams, all had collapsed to lie within the walls. The beams had long since rotted, leaving a fertile mulch for all sorts of herbs to grow in, but the tiles still formed treacherous piles of rubble where I could easily twist an ankle. All the same, I was determined to see the place, so I proceeded.
"Well, there wasn't much to see. From without, the ruins had appeared imposing, but the thickness of the walls deceived. I did find the actual entrance, facing away from the road and to the South, probably to fend off the icy blasts of winter winds which would only have found a castle gate to be an invitation to enter. I also found a snug corner along the wall, probably just on the other side from where my horse was grazing. I collected scraps of dry wood to last the night in the last glimmerings of twilight, and lit my fire.
"After eating some of my road rations, and drinking some chai brewed over the fire, I lay down to sleep. I do not know how long I slept, but in the middle of the night I awakened. At first I didn't know what had disturbed me, and then I heard a soft moan. I listened for a moment, trying to make out if it were the wind or a beast. The moan was interrupted by a sob, and I decided that I was listening to a woman's lament.
"I'm no hero, no dashing rescuer, but who wouldn't help someone in need? I decided to see what was happening. I withdrew a fistful of brands from my fire, and fanned them aflame. With them to light my way, I carefully sought the source of the sound. It continued without ceasing, and I soon found my way into a room, as devastated as the rest, with the difference that it contained a carved stone box. Kneeling at the foot of the box, her head resting against it, was a woman's figure, shoulders heaving with her crying.
"My sword, which I've already told you bears a spirit, warned me at that
"Holding my brands aloft to light my way, I approached the specter. She took no notice, though my steps clattered on the broken tiles, and the light from the burning twigs danced on the walls like the Wild Hunt. When I was close enough, I stretched out my hand, to touch the specter's shoulder."
Mark took a shuddering breath and shut his eyes. The memory of that awful moment was coming back to him, and he squeezed his folded hands together, trying to control his emotions. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped. He opened his eyes to the light of the tavern room, and Sera was beside him.
"Your grog," she said, indicating the freshly filled mug on the table. When he reached for his coin purse, she put a restraining hand on his. "We'll settle up in the morning," she told him, and walked back to her work.
Mark took the mug in both hands, relishing its feeling of warmth, and drank deeply again. With the heat of the grog in his belly, he put the mug back on the table and continued his story.
"The specter was cold. Deadly cold. If you put your hand in a snow bank, that is cold, true, but it passes with speed. This was a bone searing cold, a burning, killing, awful cold. The cold of death. At that moment I knew I had made a very bad mistake. I withdrew my hand, but it was already too late.
"The ghost had stopped its moaning. Its shoulders no longer shook. For a long moment we both must have seemed like statues, frozen in some strange tableau. When the ghost finally moved, I started to feel true fear, and began to back away. It turned until I saw its face. It was illuminated not by my flickering torch, but by an unworldly inner flame. I first noticed the lips, drawn back in a rictus to expose broken teeth. The skin seemed black, at first, and then I realized that the face had been flayed, and what I saw was blood running on the exposed flesh. Lidless eyes stared at me.
"And then the apparition rose before me. The body it wore had been horribly tortured: Flayed, and then torn open, with its very entrails exposed. I had heard of such tortures, indulged in by people of my country many years ago. Here was a product of that horror.
"By now I was backing away as fast as I could. I hit the wall behind me with my back, and sidled along it in a desperate search for the opening. I held my torch before me as one might a sword, and I believe I must have screamed like a woman.
"The ghost just stood there.
"Having found the doorway, I backed out. Stumbling, yet not daring to watch where I was stepping because that would mean taking my eyes off that horror. When I had turned a corner, and the ghost was now hidden, I turned and ran.
"The light from my brand wasn't really enough to see where I was going, so I quickly ended up slipping on the tiles. I tried to catch myself, but the arm with which I had touched the ghost was entirely dead to feeling, and I fell, measuring the length of my body amongst the rubble. The burning twigs flew from my other hand and went out. Now I was in the dark.
"I don't know how long I lay there, afraid to move. Then the darkness seemed to thicken, blotting out even the stars above me. There was the sound of whispering, and a malevolence so palpable that I broke out in a cold sweat.
"I've never been afraid of the dark, but now I knew that the dark contained a very particular horror. Weeping with fear, I found my way to the nearest wall by touch alone, and then worked along the stonework, my dead arm hanging uselessly by my side. The creeping horror seemed always just behind me, whispering words that were only on the other side of hearing.
"Miraculously, I had found the outside wall, and after a few moments, I had the opening. Stepping through was the work of a moment, and then I was running headlong into the forest. Heedless of the possibility that I might fall and injure myself in the dark, I ran until I was completely exhausted and fell to the ground. The whispering was no longer after me, but then a scream rose behind me, and gave me renewed strength through the terror that it inspired.
"Sometime late the next morning I awoke. I had fallen in a faint, I suppose, and had no idea where I was. I took note that sometime during my ordeal I must have soiled myself. I could clean up at the nearest brook, but without food or water I was in a lot of trouble. Orienting myself by the stand of the Sun, I found my way to the road, and then to the spot beneath the ruins where the previous night's terrors had beset me.
"It took a while to work up enough courage to climb up that ravine again. At the top, I was greeted by a buzzing of flies and the smell of a charnel house. A fly-blown heap of offal in the rye grass first seemed strange to me, and then I realized that I was looking at the remains of my poor horse. Flayed. Torn open, and the entrails pulled out. The bizarre mass hanging in a tree at the edge of the clearing was its hide. The scream I had heard in the night had no doubt been its death cry.
"I think I almost ran at that point. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did in my life to climb back into those ruins to retrieve my possessions. They had apparently been left unmolested."
Mark interrupted himself for another drink, and then looked at Troek again.
"You understand that I don't believe that the ghost I first touched and the thing that pursued me were the same. The ghost probably saved my life by warning me of the awful evil that haunted the ruins. All the same, ghosts have my abiding respect."