Derryk watched out the window as his twin brother Darryn got down on his knee to propose to his fiancée, the beautiful Lady Virginia. His brother was all dressed up in his knight regalia, covered from head to toe in black armor. Derryk’s heart pounded, as he stared while trying to stay in the shadows.

She doesn’t love him. But if I let this continue they will get married anyways.

His twin brother Darryn was firstborn but only by a few minutes to their father John Rivers. Their father, a bastard orphan who busied himself creating a new lineage from nothing, had a humble farmstead which he acquired through a barroom wager which resulted in a nasty brawl and the death of his opponent. That night, victory was won fair and square in view of the Sheriff, who understood and agreed to the terms of the bet. After being accompanied by the Sheriff, some spectators and a notary to his new dwelling, he discovered the man’s widow, a beautiful newlywed bride, waiting by the window worried sick for her dead husband. After dispensing with the awkward introductions and informing the newly widowed girl of the situation, he bent down on one knee and asked her to marry him. After blushing, she shrugged and consented and just like that, he acquired for himself a wife as part of the bargain. Papers were drawn up concerning property and marital rights and obligations. A drink was had to celebrate the occasion and Mr. John Rivers became the new owner of the property and husband of the newly Mrs. Sarah Rivers. He was a hard worker and did what he could to better the property. Within the first month his wife was pregnant and nine months later gave birth to twin boys.

Darryn and Derryk were given all they needed and John brought a tutor from town to teach them their letters and figures. While Derryk loved reading, Darryn got bored easily and would often be found outside chasing the dogs. Yet due to luck and good fortune, it was Darryn, not Derryk who was made knight.

A knight had lost his way during a storm on a cold, wet night after a battle, and had stumbled upon their little cottage. John Rivers immediately invited him in and fed him. The old bastard, while expressing humble and religious sentiments to the grateful knight, was a wily and prudent man and did nothing for free. He anticipated the profit that would come from aiding one of the King’s knights and rushed to offer the man his own food and bed. After the man was well rested and his belly was full, he granted John Rivers whatever he wished. Rivers demurred, saying it was the knight’s prerogative to offer what he would and he would accept what was given. The knight proposed to take in his eldest son as a squire and train him in the ways of knighthood. A few years later and the simple farm-boy Darryn acquired a suit of armor and an arrogance to go along with it.

Derryk did not complain that his father had chosen Darryn over him. He knew the realities that the firstborn was entitled to double portions and all that. He grudgingly tried to be happy for his brother — riding out on fearsome adventures while he remained behind to help his father mind the farm. Anyways he had always been more bookish than Darryn. It was only when Darryn’s dark side started coming out, that Derryk realized who his brother really was. While Darryn had seen his brother antagonizing the farm dogs during their youth, he hadn’t put much stock to it. Then he heard rumors that his brother had raped one of the maids. His brother scoffed and called it ‘another of her children’s stories’. The sick perversion that was unstated was revealed when Derryk found out the victim was the woman who used to read them bedtime stories when they were children.

After talking to the maid, Anna, and believing her, he started to grow an unquenchable hatred for his brother. He tried to tell his parents quietly about Darryn but they refused to hear. His mother shook her head frantically and as if afraid, looked carefully around the room. “Your brother is dangerous. He will hurt you one day. You must leave.”

He refused. “I will never leave you and father, nor the rest of the household to his clutches.”

But there was not much he could do. His brother was bigger and stronger than him.

When his brother brought home his fiancée, Lady Virginia, his parents were ecstatic. She was breathtakingly beautiful, with a slim, curved figure, full red lips, deep blue eyes and long flowing honey colored hair. Virginia was the daughter of a Lord who had fallen into financial difficulties. While a match to a bastard family like theirs was normally unheard of, Virginia’s father was desperate.

As Lady Virginia started spending more time around the farm, Derryk saw that she loved to read. He offered her the many books that he had and they got involved in hour long discussions on vast varieties of topics. Before long he realized that he loved her.

As much as he longed for her, he could not think of what to do. His brother was strong and more importantly a knight. If he stole his son’s bride, he’d have the whole King’s army after him.

He waited and bided his time, knowing with increasing desperation that time was running out. Indeed it did. That day he watched out the window with a sinking heart as his brother requested that Lady Virginia be his bride.

“Derryk,” he heard his voice being called softly from behind him. Turning around he saw his mother looking worriedly at him. “I know you love her. You two belong together, the amount of time you spend with each other and looks on your faces.”

“If only the world were fair,” Derryk said in a quiet voice, glancing again out the window. “Any second and she’ll be his wife.”

She walked over to him and lay a hand on his shoulder. “The cavalry is coming Derryk. You know what that means.”

He turned quickly. “The cavalry…the King is going to war?”

She nodded. “And no knight can be married on the eve of war, lest he be distracted.”

“How do you know cavalry is coming?”

“I just got back from town to get food. Everybody knows.”

And just then he heard it. The storming sound of horse hooves galloping a short distance away. He saw Darryn let go of Virginia’s hand and stand up, looking towards the oncoming knights.

“Now is an opportunity,” his mother said in a low voice, almost as if afraid Darryn would hear. “One never knows how long a battle will last. Your brother could be back sooner than you think.”

He turned to face his mother. “Thank you Mother.”

She nodded and he saw tears were rolling down her cheeks. He reached over and wiped them away.

“It is harder than you think, doing this to my own son. That, and you must leave or he will kill you.”

He stared at her, about to refuse, but then he thought of Virginia. “You’re right Mother. It’s the only way we can live in peace. But I promise, I will come back for you and father.”

“Don’t promise what you cannot fulfil my son.” She smiled through her tears. “For your happiness I am willing to sacrifice both my children. One I will never see, and one I will have betrayed.”

He hugged his mother and ran outside. His brother was already gone with all the men and he heard and saw the horses galloping off in the distance.

Virginia stood nearby, a look of visible relief on her face.

“Lady Virginia,” he said softly.

She turned, a bit startled but smiled. “Hello Derryk.”

“We don’t have much time,” he said, not returning her smile. “You have to come with me now.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“I know you don’t want to marry my brother. I don’t want you to marry him. He is a…well you know what kind of a man he is.”

“I am betrothed to him,” she said, her hair blowing around her face in the wind. “Whether I like it or not, I gave him my word…it is considered like an oath.”

He shook his head. Why must she be so stubborn?

“Virginia, it is not just that.” He looked around himself desperately. His eyes landed on the dark forest which bordered their land on the south. “There is a curse on this land. There is an ancient evil which dwells in the forest. Darryn has woken it up by always hunting in there. The story goes that on the first full moon after the evil is awoken, it comes to the thief’s home and takes everything, innocent or guilty. It leaves nobody alive.”

She stared at him in shock. “If you are playing…”

He looked her straight in the eyes until she looked away. “I am perfectly serious Virginia. Ask my parents. Darryn scoffed at the story but told me he’d be off at the full moon. Sure enough, he’s gone. And the full moon is coming…”

She looked positively terrified. “Ok. But what about your parents?”

He glanced toward the house. “My father has plans for this. Him and my mother will go their own way and they do not want youngsters following them.”

Virginia swallowed and nodded. “Ok.”

He took her by the hand. “Take as little as you can. I’ll bring some food.”

After grabbing some bread and cheese and a few apples, they were off.

He didn’t know where he wanted to settle, but he figured they’d go for as long as they could and then stop in one of the towns.

The two of them set out through field and forest, with Derryk seeking out any work he could get to eke out some coins for food and shelter. Luckily, every farmer needed a hand and was glad to hire a traveler for a day’s work in exchange for some food, shelter and if they were lucky a few coins. Lady Virginia offered her own skills too for coin, such as sewing, embroidery and occasionally house cleaning. Derryk protested against her engaging in degrading labor, but she refused to listen. It impressed him, although he didn’t say anything, that unlike other girls who grew up as pampered Ladies and were scared to break a nail washing a dish, Virginia didn’t seem to mind and preferred to work than to sit around while Derryk worked.

Derryk knew deep down, although he tried not to think about it, that eventually he would have to face a reckoning with Darryn. By all likelihood he was back from war by now, even though it was difficult to separate fact from rumor in all these little villages. He sometimes dreamt of his brother approaching him menacingly in his knight’s armor and swinging a spiked club at him.

“Your time will come, little brother,” Darryn would chide, his face hidden except for glittering, hateful eyes under his helm. “You stole my bride and I will kill you, remember that.”

He’d wake up sweating and shivering and would have to convince himself that Darryn was far away. Eventually though, he grew to despise his fear of his brother. Because he’s stronger than me, I should fear him? I’m not embarrassed by what I did. She did not love you. I saved her from a terrible fate.

He knew that he would always fear his brother though, at least until he became strong enough in his own right. He had never had opportunity to train as a youngster because he was always either helping in the farm or swallowing up books. Now he realized how little his physical prowess was worth.

None of the books in the world will save me or Virginia if I cannot defend us.

That thought lay heavily on his mind as they continued traveling, never staying in one place for longer than a day. The traveling had affected the both of them, as both of their clothes were worn, ripped and dirty. Virginia tried to keep herself as well as possible by washing often and trying to keep her hair like she was accustomed to, but he could see that nobody who didn’t know her would ever recognize her as a Lady. A beautiful peasant girl, yes.

He introduced her as his wife, so as not to give anyone any ideas, but slept on the floors of wherever they stayed. Sometimes he would lay awake on wooden floorboards for hours, listening to her soft breathing as she slept. How he wished they could marry, but he didn’t know how to bring it up after what she said. If she considered her betrothal an oath, the only one who could break the oath was her and Darryn. Unless Darryn died.

One morning, a few months after they left, Derryk woke up early and decided to go get some fresh milk from the farmer they were staying at. They had been given a small shack filled with hay and feed to sleep in. He got up and moved quietly to the door, giving a sharp breath intake at seeing Virginia lying there asleep. He saw her every day and yet each time he was filled with such a thrill at seeing this woman he was so madly in love with, sleeping but a short distance from him.

He let out a low exhale and slipped out of the shack. When he got to the cow barn, he saw a knight standing there, talking to the farmer. The knight looked visibly exhausted and was holding his helm, letting it dangle against his hip. He was an older fellow with a grayish beard. The farmer passed the knight a jug with milk in it as Derryk walked in.

“Good morning.”

The farmer looked up and nodded. “Good morning to you young man. You slept well I hope?”

He nodded. “After a good day’s work it is next to impossible not to.” He beckoned to the knight who was sipping his milk, watching him from over the lid of the jug. “Who’s this?”

“Sir Alfric. Just back from war.”

Alarm bells went off in his head. Perhaps he knew Darryn?

He walked over and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

Alfric lowered the jug and wiped away the milk from his beard. “Likewise. A traveling worker?”

He nodded. “Yes sir. My name is Derryk.”

“Derryk, hmmm…” The knight stroked his beard, giving him a long intent look which Derryk didn’t like. “I’ve been hearing a lot of that name lately. Funny.”

“Have you?” He pointed to the cow’s udder and made a drinking motion to the farmer. “Please.” The farmer nodded and went to work. Turning back to the knight, he shrugged and grinned. “I guess I have a famous name.”

“I guess so, eh?” The knight said, taking another long drink from the jug.

“Just out of curiosity,” he gave a stretch and yawned, as if to appear indifferent. “Where did you hear my name?”

The knight finished swallowing then put down his jug. “A fellow in my company when I went off to fight. We picked him up as he was about to get married. Poor fellow wasn’t happy, but you should have seen him fight. I never saw somebody with the rage that he had. He bashed men’s skulls in on the field of battle and raped their widows with the blood and sweat still dripping off of him. The bastard even killed some babes. I told myself that I would never want to get on the bad side of that one. I was glad when we got rid of him and dropped him at his village to reclaim his bride. Only his bride wasn’t there.”

He leaned over and gave a wolfish grin. “This fellow Darryn, well it seems that his brother ran away with her — his brother Derryk.”

“Interesting.” Derryk said, grabbing the jug from the farmer and taking a long gulp. So he’s back from war and he knows I took Virginia.

“If I were this Derryk, I’d run and hide. I’d run to the ends of the world, but I don’t think that’s far enough.”

“Did you hear anything about his parents?”

He shrugged. “No, can’t say I have.”

Derryk finished his milk and quickly went to the shack. “Virginia, we have to go. Now.”

She was just opening her eyes and he felt bad but he knew that his brother would stop at nothing to find them. They had to leave and get as far away as possible.

He took her by the hand after she hurriedly got dressed and made for the barn to collect his pay from the farmer. Suddenly he stopped and reconsidered.

“Come, let’s head for the woods.”

“Why the rush?” Virginia asked in desperation.

“We’re in danger.”

“The evil spirit?”

“What…oh yes.” He had almost forgotten about that.

They made for the woods and ran until they were out of sight of the farm and had arrived at a stream.

“I cannot go on,” she said panting and leaning on a tree. “We have to stop and rest.”

He looked around worriedly. “We cannot stay put for long.”

“Why? Will the evil spirit find us here?”

Derryk scratched his head and then sighed. “I suppose not. Come, let’s see if there are any fish swimming in this stream that I can catch for us.”

Having had occasion to read many books, he had remembered reading a book on making a net to catch fish, something which had done them well on their travels in the wild. Looking into the rippling water and seeing small, dark shapes darting around, he went to search for tall, thick reeds and a good branch.

“I’ll gather us some berries.” Virginia thankfully knew the edible berries from the poisonous, something she’d learnt from one of her tutors, growing up.

Derryk selected for himself the firmest and greenest reeds and finding a solid but lithe branch, he worked to weave the reeds through each other, tying the endings all around the branch. He gave it a firm shake and satisfied, walked over to the water and lowered it in. It did not take long before a nice one swam in and he swiftly lifted the net up.

Watching the fish flip around on dry land, he thought to himself, These poor, dumb beasts, they think if only they flop around enough they may be saved. The he frowned. What about him? Was he not flopping around? He had lied to Virginia to get her to follow him. He was still too frightened of his brother, of what Virginia would say. The longer he kept on the lie, the worse it would be at the end.

He lit a fire and turned the fish over on a branch, watching it sear, the smell of roasted fish rising in the air.

“Well that smells utterly delicious,” Virginia said, appearing out of the trees holding two handfuls of berries. She smiled and bent her head to bite one. “Very good. You want?” she said, motioning, her mouth full of berry.

He laughed. How he loved her. He had to tell her the truth now, come what may.

“Come Virginia, sit down. It’s ready.”

She sat down beside him and placed the berries on a leaf.

“I have something to tell you Virginia.” He took a deep breath. “There is no evil spirit.”

She looked at him as if not understanding. “But you told me…”

“I lied. I…I didn’t want Darryn to marry you. He doesn’t deserve you — and…and I love you.”

She stared at him, then quickly turned away. “Oh.”

He waited for her to respond, but no answer came.

“Please say something Virginia. Do you…do you forgive me?”

She glanced over at him. “You lied to me Derryk,” she said in a soft voice.

“I am sorry Virginia, but I saw no other way.” He looked at her desperately, hoping to see some sign of her returning his feelings.

“I don’t know what to say to you,” she finally said. “I told you that I had made an oath to your brother.”

His shoulders sagged hopelessly. “Virginia, you don’t love him. That oath is worthless if you didn’t mean it.”

She stood up. “I need some time to think.”

He watched her walk away from him and sank into hopeless despair.

What Derryk and Virginia did not know was that they were being watched. Or hunted is a better term. While Derryk’s evil spirit had been a fairy tale, that did not mean all spirits were such. And there happened to reside a terribly wicked one in the very wood which they were now resting in. Had Derryk not been in such a rush to flee, the farmer would have told him to stay clear of the forest. Better to risk his brother’s wrath then to enter that accursed place.

This particular spirit, Shaki, was an ancient being far older than the human race — a remnant of primeval times when mighty spirits, foul creatures and great beasts roamed the earth. While great battles faded into legend had either destroyed these beings or else compelled them to flee to the farthest reaches of the heavens, Shaki had burrowed quietly into a forest, young, virgin and untouched at the time, in the hope of biding his time until some poor wayfarer got lost and he could slake his appetite for blood and flesh. For ages, the little forest lay outside of human civilization, until the curiosity and ambition of humanity led them even to this far reaching corner. Here it was that over the years a legend grew among the locals of an unnamed evil which resided in the forest and slaughtered all who entered its boundaries unless a living human sacrifice was brought. For Shaki enjoyed the blood of a sacrifice offered to him, far more than one taken by force.

It had been a while since Shaki had last eaten and he was ravenous. Floating through the woods in his noncorporeal state, he smelled fresh, live human blood and filled with desire, searched until he came upon the young man and woman.

“Virginia?” Derryk looked around having thought he’d heard someone walking.

No answer.

A strange, chill came over him and he put down his fish, looking around. “Virginia?”

“Yes?” she answered from somewhere.

He looked this way and that. “Where are you? It is easy to get lost in these woods.”

“Is that so?” she said, her voice seeming to be everywhere at once. “Perhaps if you’d come and give me a hug, maybe a kiss…”

He stiffened and jumped up. “Who are you?”

“I’m Virginiaaa…” the voice sang out. Then a hideous, high pitched laugh echoed through the woods.

Virginia came bursting through the trees suddenly, looking terrified. “What’s going on? Who’s saying that?”

They stood alongside each other, slowly circling to see where the awful voice was coming from.

“Why are you so frightened?” the voice said in a deep, unhuman growl. “I am Shaki, Lord of these woods. You’ve entered into my lair, so you are mine.”

A sound like a wind was heard and a coolness shot through the air, causing Derryk to shiver.

“I have been waiting a while for lost travelers to unwittingly wander into my home. I have been very hungry.”

Derryk glanced at Virginia. She was white and her lips were trembling. He reached out and took her hand.

He was scared himself. He had never encountered anything unnatural like this, but had heard and read in books that according to legend, ancient beings existed during the early ages of the universe. He’d never heard of Shaki but that didn’t matter now.

He knew from what he read that the ancients used to bring sacrifices to appease these beings.

“Is there something you want?”

There was no response. Just the same distant, chilling laughter.

“We’re going to die,” Virginia said, breathing quick shallow breaths. “What was a lie came true anyway.”

“No,” he said. “We’re not dead yet. I’ll think of something.”

He looked around at the dark woods. He thought he could see some movement just beyond the trees. Some creeping thing, trying to stay hidden from view, but crawling towards them.

“I’m scared Derryk!” Virginia clung to him, her voice shaking. “There’s something there.”

He thought of making a run for it, but heard more movement behind them. Whatever was approaching was entrapping them on all sides.

“Derryk,” Virginia held his hand and looked into his eyes. “I want you to know, in case we die here tonight. I…I love you.”

A warmth shot through him as she said that, a feeling of sheer happiness which seemed to dispel all forces of evil and place them on a cloud above the whole entire world.

He held her gaze for what seemed like eternity, and then pulled her into an embrace. “I love you too Virginia,” he murmured. “I love you so much. And if we get out of here, I want to marry you.”

“Me too,” she whispered. “And I have my own confession to make too.”

He pulled her closer. “Tell me.”

“I have a strange power which I was born with. When I get very upset and I lose control, well…”

“Well what?”

“The thing I’m looking at, well it gets turned to stone. I’ve turned things to stone Derryk, I’ve turned animals to stone and I’ve even turned people to stone. I may turn you to stone. Do you still want to marry me?”

He pulled her deeper into an embrace. “I would want to marry you if I could spend even a day as your husband before you turn me to stone.”

She hugged him tighter. “I never told your brother. I always felt like a monster with this…thing.”

He stopped suddenly. “You say you can turn anything into stone?”

“Anything that I see if I’m feeling very upset.”

He released her slowly and looked around, the crawling things were loud and seemed to be so close to him…yet he could not see anything.

“Lord Shaki!” he called out. “Where are you?”

A low, rumbling laughter came. “I am everywhere. Did you enjoy that moment with your brother’s wife?”

Derryk ignored that even though his blood started rushing.

“You are a cowardly Lord! You can only hurt us in hiding.”

A low growl floated through the air. “You fool. Did nobody ever tell you not to play with an Ancient Lord?”

Then a shimmer appeared in the air in front of them and a body materialized. Derryk’s breath stopped. It was Darryn.

Darryn appeared sad and wounded. “Derryk? How could you steal Virginia from me? You’re my brother.”

Derryk swallowed and backed off a few steps. “Darryn?”

Darryn’s sad expression then curled up into a mocking smile. “You filthy human creature. I think I’m ready to eat you.”

The grotesque sight made Derryk sick. He glanced over at Virginia and saw that she was staring at the creature. But there was nothing she could do, as his eyes were on Derryk.

Then his brother’s body changed. His feet sprouted into hoofs, his body took on a strange animal shape and his head expanded with a wild growth of hair and great horns coming out. The thing made a high pitched ugly shriek and bounded towards him.

Virginia screamed and the thing suddenly seemed to notice her and turned its head. In an instant it froze into a stone statue.

The air seemed to lighten all of a sudden and a feeling of relief swept through Derryk.

Virginia ran to him and collapsed in his arms.

“You did it,” he whispered. “You did it my love.”

They emerged from the forest and walked away as if newborn.

Derryk didn’t want to wait.

“We’ve waited enough,” he said. “Let’s get married now.”

They stood in that open field on the edge of the formerly dangerous woods, looking into each other’s eyes deeply in love and preparing to commit to each for the rest of their lives.

As Derryk prepared to take Virginia into his arms, the sound of horses galloping rose in his ears. He turned and saw horsemen, maybe a few dozen, making their way over as fast as they could. They all had their swords drawn and were positioning themselves in such a way that they had them surrounded.

As soon as they were completely encircled, one of them leaped off his horse and approached, pulling off his helm. It was Darryn.

The look in his eyes were murderous, full of hate and rage. His hands tightened around his sword as he got closer.

Derryk’s heart raced as the familiar fear of his brother returned. He’s going to slaughter us both in cold blood. At our own wedding.

But then something happened. A strange feeling of calm grew over him. You fear him? You faced and defeated the Ancient Lord Shaki. You are greater than he could ever be.

It was as if a transformation came over his brother as well. Instead of sticking his sword into him, Darryn planted it into the ground and pulled his brother into an embrace.

“Brother…it’s been a while.”

“Yes. I heard you were in a great battle.”

“I was,” his brother looked over at Virginia. “I see you two are together.”

“We are in love Darryn,” he said.

Darryn nodded. “Of course. And I am happy for the both of you. He turned and gestured to the horsed men. “I have legions of knights at my command, more women than I could count and enough animals and property to bring our father’s bastard lineage to heights he never imagined.” He let out a booming laugh. “You will further the dynasty in your own way I’m sure.”

“I will certainly try,” he said.

“Ha, always the humble one. What say you head on back home with me to visit with Father and Mother? We shall have the whole family together. We can live side by side and our children can play together.”

Derryk looked past his brother to the horizon.

“That is a very tempting offer Darryn. It is only that my wife and I are weak from our travels. We will slow you down. You go on your way and we will meet up eventually.”

His brother stared at him and a crooked grin slowly formed on his face, as if he was saying, we both know you won’t, but so be it.

His brother nodded and remounted his horse, bidding them goodbye and good luck.

“Until then!”

He waved then turned to his new bride. “My love. What happened to us can never be understood by anyone else in the world. We have an unbreakable bond that was forged between us in that forest.”

As they pulled each other into a tight embrace, even as the horsemen galloped into the horizon, they both said, “Together we have overcome man and monster and so shall we overcome anything that rises against our love till the end of our days.”

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