THE CURSE OF LIANDERIN
Curious thing, but I couldn’t help but imagine it…
Fragments. Stained glass in deep Stygian shades...
Stygian? Had he really used that word? A word that I had never actually heard used in conversation.
…deep Stygian shades, alternately opaque and translucent, blacks and grays, seams shimmering in the effulgence of the rising moon…
There was a moon on this cold November night. A rising moon. Not quite full but bright.
…a silvery coin, imperfect, not circular but clipped, a Roman coin…
But that description had come before the elaborately articulated transformation of the sky, when the storyteller was still setting the stage.
Disconnected and nonsuccessive were the bits and pieces of his story coming to me now, almost twenty-four hours later, my eyes on the continuously recycling center line, the deepening night and its antiquities meshing around me. As the road carelessly wound its way up the ridge, I couldn’t help but imagine that when I arrived there, at the overlook, and the magnificent, multi-turreted castle that is Lianderin’s offering to the world commanded my vision, the rich material of the sky would suddenly fragment, not a fabric at all but stained glass, seams shimmering.
…the answer to a warlord’s arrogance and foolhardy ambition finally unfurling…
A great shadow, elegant and flickering, descend over the Our valley.
…a plague bestowed as by the thrust of a biblical staff, locusts showering down on the earth…
Funny, but I had never thought myself so suggestible.
They rushed the silent, undefended Schloss, the cry of victory on the air, and then all at once they detected a disturbance from high above and all four corners of the compass, a sound whose alienness alone, in the heavy quietude of the night, was cause for alarm…
How ostentatiously poetic he’d been in the telling of it, an innkeeper whose words of themselves were worth the francs. And Castle Larochette like a tomb outside the bar’s slightly fogged window, a grim accent to his tale. His English had been superb as his meticulous attention to detail, his language mitigating his accent such that I hadn't been able to tell whether he normally spoke French or German--I mean to his wife, his children, upstairs and asleep, oblivious to the terrors of the night. He’d said his town of birth was Bollendorf, but Bollendorf was even nearer the border than Larochette. Of course in the time of his tale there hadn’t been a Luxembourg or a Germany. There had only been regions. And the lords of them.
High Lord Gilzern was a boar of a man, brawny, whiskered and smelling of sour beer. His one weakness was his fearlessness…
I had drunk entirely too much local while my host told his story. And perhaps that was the motive behind his lengthy elaborations. I was the inn’s only guest, as I found out the next morning when I sat alone at the house’s complimentary, and decidedly one-person, breakfast. A hard living, an inn and the off-season, tap never running dry. Please excuse, of course, the better-than-generous volume of beer to which my host treated himself.
“Witches,” sneered Gilzern. “Humph! Neither witches nor bloodsuckers, devils nor ghouls shall alter my purpose. Lianderin is the prize and Lianderin I shall have, be the hordes of Darkness Itself there to defend her walls.”
The crest was nearing now, and not far beyond it, I knew, stood the Schloss, grandly illuminated in the night. I had been here before, arriving at a late hour, a tourist and my naïveté. But not at this time of year. And not this year, this night. Strangely, there was no traffic on the road.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of that fateful night when Gilzern and his army crossed the Our River and rushed the castle…
I hadn’t intended to be arriving so late--or after dark at all. Upon leaving the inn I had experienced car trouble. A certain hesitation (recently noticed and ignored) had evolved overnight, as my car sat idly contemplating its own existence, into an outright sputtering. Resisting acceleration, the already languid hatchback had putted like the train that thought it could up a long gradual hill and then died without honor ten meters shy of the top.
I walked the three kilometers back to the Gasthaus, and the innkeeper put me in contact with a local garage. They pulled the car in (at an extravagant expense), and while it waited its turn, I explored Larochette’s castle and the hiking trails that led away from it. Not until the third time I checked in did they actually have a man on my car. That was around two o’clock. It was four-thirty before he had chased the problem down, a clogged line, back near the fuel tank. The sun was setting as my keys were returned to me, my wallet significantly lighter for the inconvenience.
After a brief dinner at a nearby restaurant, I stopped by to thank the innkeeper before continuing on my journey. He looked at me disapprovingly when he learned my destination hadn’t changed.
“You will go on to Lianderin anyway? At this hour?”
“I’m a man on holiday,” I said. “Pleased to be without a schedule--”
“Then no harm will be done by your accepting my invitation to rest here another night.”
“I will rest in Lianderin.”
“The only rest you will find in Lianderin tonight is of the permanent variety.”
There it was, right out in the open. And seeming somehow more than just an extension of his story. I studied him a protracted moment before letting the corners of my mouth lift in a grin. Although he smiled back, it didn’t feel like a secret between us. Nay, ‘twas I the fool.
And perhaps that was the job of the Third of the Three Angels on this mythological holiday of mine--to bring me, with a whisper in my ear, to that simple assessment. Her sisters had successfully performed their jobs: one to put a gremlin in my fuel system, the other to make it difficult to locate. All designed to keep me in Larochette, while Lianderin was only forty kilometers away.
And now, with all that in the rearview mirror, it seemed my guardians still had not abandoned me. The words of their mortal emissary kept me company every step of the way.
I pulled over before reaching the top of the ridge, wanting a clearer view of the sky than I would be afforded when first the rim of the village, and then the castle with all its floodlights, emerged out of my memory and into the sensory realm. Stepping out of the car, I gazed up at the sky. Glittering tapestry that it was, I could not imagine it quite as he had described it. Fragmented, perhaps. Stained glass, no. Alternately opaque and translucent, no. No light would show through when the vault was filled with their wings.
When High Lord Gilzern’s scouts reported that both Schloss and surrounding village were empty and defenseless, Gilzern threw back his head and laughed. “You see!” announced he triumphantly. “They have fled like hares. I gave them a fortnight’s notice and they have fled. Now what think you, you craven advisors of mine? ‘Avoid Lianderin,’ you said. ‘Avoid Lianderin, for Lianderin is home to a great covey of witches.’ So where are they now, these associates of Darkness?”
Gazing across the starry arch of night, I found myself wondering the same thing. I climbed back in the car, somewhat amused with myself.
“A shame,” said Gilzern, “that my men, for their long march, will not be rewarded with a battle. But I say again, the real prize, when the horns have blown, is Lianderin.” Yet even as he spoke these words, he was reminded by his instincts that not often were prizes of such rarity obtained without a cost...
A sign stated the proximity of the Schloss, and I wondered where my excitement had gone. The words of the innkeeper tarried, but without the haunting quality of before. My roadside study of the night sky seemed to have stolen the flutter.
I rounded a turn and the road leveled. Houses oddly modern, out of setting, slipped by. German symmetry, French nonchalance, American overtones. The trees among which they were built fell away, and, sooner perhaps than I had expected, I found myself looking out over the valley and upon the castle perched on its own hill above the surrounding village. The to-do I remembered was absent. The floodlights were off, the Schloss standing dark and silent at its enviable site amidst the hills, and yet all the more lovely for its solitude and lack of occasion.
As every eye turned to the firmament, Schloss Lianderin stood silently by. Solitudinous, majestic. A prize oh so easy, oh so effortlessly won, and yet so profoundly, so utterly unobtainable.
Yes, it does seem to be that, I thought. Not in its design, for it suffered as a fortress. Not in its location, for wasn’t it meant to impress more than to discourage? Its presence was what made it the prize it was, and no floodlight could adorn that perfect fact.
I sighed, moved.
Since then, upon every hundredth anniversary, as a reminder and a warning to any who would dare consider mounting an assault upon her, Lianderin has suffered no visitors. This is not to say that she has remained untouched by the great wars which have passed this way, for no thing has. But woe to those aggressors whose ambitions are within her power to thwart. Whatever form they may assume, it is to them she speaks. For even today the shadowy ones are among Lianderin’s residents, and though their swift and utter victory that night, the insult remains.
The obligatory overlook before driving down into the village. Although a second-time visitor, I stopped here to absorb the vision, to enjoy it as commercialism had not allowed the first time. But as I stepped out of the car, I detected a disturbance--
…from above and all four corners of the compass…
My eyes shot upward. The sky--yes, the gods above, it had become, in an instant, just as described--fragmented!
Not a whapping, leathery, batlike fury, as would seem to better fulfill the imagination, but a dance of glass, alternately opaque and translucent, the seam of every fragment shimmering in the light of the moon, and perhaps their own intrinsic energy as they gathered over this trespasser in their domain.
As I leapt into the car they descended. As I swung the wheel and roared away in the direction from which I had come, they fell upon the car, faces flashing in the windshield, eyes telling the story as the innkeeper, eloquent as he was, could never have; mouths twisted in a savagery matched only by my desire and determination to be down the mountain and away from this place. How I managed to avoid wrapping the car around a tree during those first seconds of the ordeal I cannot accurately say. Perhaps it was that almost as soon as I began my flight, I brought the car to a screeching halt, failing to throw the creatures from the vehicle as it skidded sideways and to rest at odds with the direction of the road.
What inspired this reaction was not the vigor and madness of their assault, which I only wished to flee, but a sudden stench, an acrid, sickeningly pungent, almost palpable stench that entirely effused the interior of the car. I swung around, looking for the flames, the burning bodies, the whatever it was that fueled the foulness permeating the air, but found only a fresh perspective of the dark blizzard that consumed the car. I spun the wheel even before turning my shoulders square again, and laid hard on the accelerator. I was absolutely blind, my heartbeat racing to velocities incomprehensible as I called upon the intervention of a greater power--over and above any instinct I might have had at my disposal--to save me from the grab bag of fatal conclusions awaiting me.
And all at once my attackers relented. They rose as one unit from the object of their assault, lifting up into the funnel of their own whirlwind, Elijah upon a chariot of black flames, from this earth and unto heaven.
The world whirred by with the kilometers I put between myself and unholy Lianderin. Within the hour I was brought, by destinies beyond my own to pilot, to the door of the inn in Larochette. Of the drive there I remember little, except how unbearably smothering the close confines of the car. Though the cold November air, I drove the distance with my window down.
Presuming the bar would be empty, I went to the main door, the one with the visitor’s bell. I wondered what time it was. I had not thought to check the clock in the car. Apparently the house was yet to sleep, for soon after the bell rang, the door opened and the face of a pretty young girl greeted me.
“Hallo,” she said--and even as the word issued from her mouth, that pretty face twisted into an ugly one, as though beset by something detestably foul.
The innkeeper’s last, almost incidentally presented paragraph, an afterthought, a footnote of suddenly horrifying proportions, emerged from the revulsion I witnessed on his daughter’s tender face. Words which could not begin to prepare me for the reactions that, starting here and tonight, would plague me for the rest of my days.
For those who are allowed to escape Lianderin on anniversary night, there is a fate infinitely worse than perishing at the hands of her shadowy residents. And that is, to be the bearers of the memory. A memory not as the mind provides but a physical one. A memory of that fateful night when the High Lord and as many of his soldiers as material would allow were mounted to poles around the castle, and piles of brush and branches were set to flame beneath their suspended feet. That same night when, before most were dead, the fires had either died away or been put out, and the remnants of what these wretched masses of melted flesh had once been were left to hang there on the scorched poles to be lusted over by scavengers until gracious death finally came. And after death had come and gone, still they hung there. Hung there to be ravaged by the carrion crows while decomposition took its lazy course. It is said that for weeks after, Lianderin stank of burnt and rotting flesh. But the memory of it never fades. In those who carry it with them from Lianderin, it survives in all its vivid, putrescent, reeking detail.
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