Being Compline, Saturday, the Feast Day of Saint Valentine, Anno Domini One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six, somewhere in the Forest of Averoigne…
Four travelers shuffle through the dried leaves, carefully following the light of one bobbing lantern. The trunks of the huge oaks, never touched by axe, resemble monumental pillars, and the branches high overhead complete the illusion of a vast, deserted pagan cathedral. Here there is no wind and little cold, yet some of the companions shiver nonetheless as they trod through brown ferns and over the occasional log.
All are reluctant to break the silence, whether from reverence or fear. Eventually, Bruyant speaks. “Should we not have been there long ago?” he asks with hesitation, grasping a tree for support.
“Indeed,” huffs Pierre, lifting the lantern so he may see his friends’ faces. “Art thou sure that we proceed in the correct direction, friar?”
Marcel shields his eyes against the sudden illumination. “I track by the stars, when I can glimpse them above. We are traveling in the correct direction.”
Julien sniffs. “’Tis not as ill as I feared. There is a serenity here, a peacefulness…”
The friar whirls, his staff at the ready. Everyone gazes at him in wonder.
“I heard a branch snap,” he says. “Methinks we are followed.”
They strain to listen. Somewhere a slight breeze blows. “It could have been a deer, or a squirrel,” Julien whispers.
“I am unwilling to give it the benefit of the doubt.” Bruyant frowns as he peers into the darkness.
“Gentlemen, we must continue.” Pierre, having caught his breath, lowers the lantern. “Keep an eye out.”
They walk cautiously, hands at weapons or grasping a crucifix. The woods are still.
Julien gives a muffled oath. “Tracks!” He bends to a muddy patch of ground as the others cluster about him.
“Whose?” hisses Pierre.
Bruyant stands to the side of them and sighs. “Ours, gentlemen.” He gives Marcel an angry look. “We’ve been circling!”
Marcel shakes his head. “Nay, friend! ‘Tis some devilry of the woods that…”
“Hist!” Julien lays a hand on the friar’s shoulder. “Gentlemen, I hear water!”
“Why did we not hear that when we passed before?” mutters Pierre.
“I fear some manner of sorcerous glamour,” says Bruyant, “but let us not begrudge it now.”
They walk toward the sound. The land slopes downward, and soon dense undergrowth surrounds them, the lantern’s light creating the illusion of a cage of bones lashed together. Brambles and thorns catch at the clerics’ robes, while the clerk steps around the bushes with minimal discomfort, aiding his friends when they are thoroughly entangled.
A wailing sound drifts through the air, a woman’s voice singing in a tongue none of the companions can identify.
“’Tis beautiful,” breathes Julien.
Pierre pulls some burrs off his cloak. “More haunting, but it hath a sensual quality…”
“No doubt ‘tis some siren meant to lead travelers off the path,” says Marcel gloomily.
Bruyant looks back at the tangle behind him. “Such an endeavor would be redundant. Nonetheless, if this be our doom, let us meet it with courage and faith.”
Soon a gap appears in the canopy. Beneath them is a small ravine, with bushes and small pale flowers scattered on either side of the declivity. A rivulet of water splashes down a cliff face shining with moisture and overgrown with moss, striking a slanted piece of rock to form a long, low pool, broken with ripples. It is a scene like something out of a lay of King Arthur, and tales of knights who meet adventure in the woods spring to the companions’ minds.
Within it swims a young woman, her black hair catching the moonlight as it floats behind her. She stands on the pool’s bottom, shoulders exposed, and pushes her locks back from her face, revealing a visage of utmost loveliness – arching eyebrows, laughing gray eyes, and a nose and lips that might grace a statue of Aphrodite.
Bruyant is the first to react. Grabbing the hems of his friend’s cloaks, he drags them down behind the foliage. Marcel drops quickly, and Pierre and Julien reluctantly follow.
“We must consider our approach, and the substance of our negotiations,” says the priest. “’Twould be best if we did not initiate contact by staring at her agape like yokels.”
“Aye. I must reconnoiter to assess our situation properly.” Pierre begins to rise, but Bruyant keeps hold of his cloak.
“Swimming alone, in the woods, at night?” Marcel fingers his crucifix. “And with nary a sign of fear. Could she be a lamia, or an incubus, or… Julien?”
The clerk’s face is pale, and he stares off into the distance. “The woman,” he says slowly. The group looks on in expectation. “The woman of my dreams… I mean, my – other dreams!” He throws his hands up in exasperation. “I shall explain as best I am able.”