Slapping branches aside, Julien utters a muffled oath and thrusts the torch forward. The shouts and footfalls of his companions in the dead leaves fade away behind him. He briefly considers returning or shouting, but he grits his teeth and presses ahead.
The trees are gone, and he stands in a clearing. The moon has come out from behind the clouds, casting a cerulean sheen over the crumbling remnants of an earlier time. Broken colonnades, uprooted cobblestones, and a decapitated statue of some forgotten god frame a sunken well, the curve of its rim missing the occasional stone. Several feet from this oubliette sits Orianne, long red tresses falling over creamy white shoulders. She wears a peasant blouse and a dress of such light blue that it blends with the rest of the moonlit landscape, so that one is almost convinced it is the shade of angel’s raiment. On a cloth before her lie dishes and a pitcher. Her eyes light on Julien, and she gestures toward him, a smile playing across her lips.
“Julien le Grand! Thank God you are here!”
The clerk regards the pit with some uncertainty. “Mademoiselle? What bringest thou into the depths of these woods tonight?”
“I followed thee and thy friends,” she says, rising. “I feared for thy safety. Thou speakest brave words, but thou art weakened from the beast’s sharp bite.” She gestures to the cloth. “There is not much here, and no doubt you are on your way on some glorious mission. Nonetheless, I have bread, and cheese, and cold chicken, and wine. I would have thy company in this deserted place. Wilt thou not tarry, if only for a minute?”
Julien edges closer to Orianne. “Milady, it gladdens my heart that thou hast come. This place, though… I hath seen it in mine dreams, and I know that it bringeth horror for thee and I. Let us be away, I beg thee.”
Orianne looks to one side and then the other, crimson locks swirling. She looks back at him with amusement. “I see no danger here, sir. We shall be away shortly to rejoin thy friends – though dallying might bring greater reward…”
“’Tis tempting,” says Julien, “but ‘twould be better if we were off…”
“Perhaps.” Orianne reaches to the blanket and picks up a goblet. She sashays toward him, hips swaying. “But can we not at least share a drink before we depart?”
Her lips look sweet, Julien reflects to himself. And the wine’s odor is pleasantly tart – too tart…
With an involuntary sweep of his arm, Julien knocks the cup under his nose out of Orianne’s hand. It splashes dark red on a ruined wall.
“No!” screams Orianne. She leaps back to the blanket, reaching beneath to withdraw a short blade. “Thou shalt pay for what thou hast done!” she hisses, lunging at the clerk.
Julien has just enough time to draw his sword and beat back her attack. The blade intended for his heart leaves a ragged gash on his forearm. He falls back, catching himself with his free hand on a pillar as he grows dizzy. “Why -“ he asks.
“Thou wert intended to drink the last dose of the drug,” Orianne says, slowly advancing. “’Twould have been a fitting end indeed – dying alone in the woods, surrounded by the monsters of the hell which thou dost so fittingly deserve. Instead, thou wilt die a clean death by the sword. Such a fate is kind for the man who maimed my brother.”