The monstrous trees of the Lockwoods were ebony silhouettes against the gloaming. Looming up like sable giants, the forest was wholly unwelcoming; a premonition set in me that I could not shake, but we pushed on anyway, only stopping once so I could reposition Simon to be more comfortable. We had been traveling deeper into the forest for over half an hour at a steady pace when the age of the mare suddenly caught up to her; her stride waned until we were going no faster than a crawl. I took the time now to assess Simon's wound; he sat against me feebly, his breath was labored but nonetheless audible. I kept an arm around him to steady the effects of the mare's slightly jarring gait and could feel the rise and fall of his breath slowly dwindle. I shook him gently and he groaned, his ability to express the extent of his anguish was being numbed by eminent death,
"Don't fall asleep," I ordered; the fear of losing my boyhood friend made my words rough. Even with the sway of the mare I could feel his head nod against my chest,
"Help me…" He breathed, the pain of speaking was discernible in his voice but to hear him speak at all was music to my ears. I thought frantically about what to tell him, what could I say to him that would help his pain? I thought miserably that my words would perhaps be the last ones he would hear; do I articulate my distress over the death he was most certainly facing? Did he even know he was succumbing to its dark embrace? I was unaware that I had been silently grieving before Simon, with effort, placed his bloodied hand on mine and whispered brokenly,
"Don't weep, Alastair." He took in a sharp and painful breath, his body tensing noticeably and then relaxing; he moaned and stifled his own sob. I held his hand desperately,
"I'm sorry…" I murmured, "I'm sorry." He shook his head again,
"Tell me…a story." He cringed with the endeavor, and from his voice I could detect the faint gurgle of blood deep in his throat. I swallowed my sobs and tried to compose myself…
"Do you remember" I choked, "when this horse was still young? When we were children?" He did not answer, but I knew he remembered. "She was beautiful… We loved horses, especially the stallions my father bought from Spain." I stroked Simon's hair and humorlessly chuckled, "Do you remember when my brother was almost trampled to death? I said at the time he deserved it…" Now that death was so close, that wish on my brother made me sick. "Do you remember how we ran as children through the mansion yelling and screaming until my mother and father and all the rest of the household could not bear us anymore? Do you remember the summers out in the gardens? We were so young…" Suddenly, as I looked out around the dim forest that had unexpectedly become familiar to me, I recalled another memory, one that had eluded me since it occurred so many years ago. "Do you remember we got lost once?" I said peculiarly. Simon made no sign of acknowledgment. I spoke as I gradually remembered the details of that day…
"…It had been my brothers and I, and they wanted to go into this forest…" The Lockwoods were not far from our lands; from my bedroom window I could see the tops of the gnarled bare trees towering in the distance. It was a summer afternoon when my brothers and I had decided to venture out into the Lockwoods; Simon had been there as well, but he stayed at the entrance, clearly frightened by the sight of the daunting forest, although he would never admit it. I was significantly younger than my brothers, who found it amusing to play tricks on me. When we had mistakenly lost our way while exploring deep in the forest they thought it would be entertaining to leave me. Upon realizing they were gone, I panicked. I remember the feeling of utter desolation and fear I experienced then. Angry tears sprouted as I went yelling for them; I fumbled over logs and streams, unsuccessfully navigating the woods that were now growing dark.
I was about to give up when I stumbled into a garden. Or, more precisely, what had once been a garden. The clearing was reminiscent of what had once been a magnificent estate; beneath the tangles of brier bushes and grasses, wilted ancient rose bushes, pale sprouts of lavender, and bouts of honeysuckle peeked at me. I cut myself on the thorns of blackberry bushes while trying to get out onto a broken path; following the path I came upon the core of this sprawling dismal and well forgotten property: A manor much larger than even my own squatted silently before me; it's architecture was redolent of an era far before my own; with it's towers, arches and small buttresses, it was more of a castle than anything else. It was clear that it had been sitting there for centuries, and though it should have been dilapidated and ravaged by time, it was in a peculiarly well-preserved condition although no indication of ongoing maintenance was visible.
Naturally, my boyish curiosity was peaked by this anomaly, but something about the place was dark and the aura tangibly oppressive; the strange feeling in my gut stopped me from exploring the vast and prodigious fortress. On the other side of the manor I located the road to my freedom: A monstrous black iron gate, intricately designed sat in my way, however I was small enough to find somewhere to squeeze through. On the other side of the gate I turned to gaze back at the strange visage of this lost sanctuary, and in one of the windows in the east wing I spotted, to my horror, a face peering back at me. I bolted from the gate and ran blindly all the way down the decrepit lane; I remember vaguely finding my way back out of the forest, but it had not been by the road, I had fled off into the thinning woods and never found the end of that mysterious trail. I had chalked up the face in the window to being the product of a boy's imagination, and now, as I sat upon my horse with the body of my dying friend in my arms, I became determined to find that abode and take refuge there.
Miraculously, however, that inexplicable estate seemed to find us. As if by some sort of twisted fate, the mare stopped complacently before the open gates of a glittering and very much alive castle. I stared in bewilderment as the memory of a decaying old demesne was replaced by the magnificent and luxurious sight I suddenly beheld; the fortress was awash with light and music: the vibrant and passionate sound of an orchestra and the laughter of men and women pervaded the air I had once remembered as being so still. The gardens were no longer in ruin; they blossomed, even in the dead of night, in rich and exotic colors and types. This haven seemed completely untouched by the outside world…protected and embraced by it's own transformed opulence. I directed the mare through the gates and down the lane until the face of that ancient sumptuous fortress stood over us; I felt Simon stiffen against me and knew that he was seeing it too,
"I…" Simon's voice was laced with some emotion I could not comprehend, "I…don't like it." He whispered strangely just as the grandly ornate entrance swung open and from the lavish and palatial soirée inside a man came out onto the wide marble steps and outstretched a hand in greeting, a knowing smile gracing his lips,
"Welcome, Alastair Clayne." He said, "We have been waiting for you,"