Sir Garrick knew that he was coming to the end of his quest when he drew his horse up alongside a farmyard fence which was strewn with skulls.
The farm had been abandoned a long time ago, Garrick knew this, but the skulls hadn't been there for more than a week, probably less. There were at least three dozen, all tied to the fence facing out towards the road, a warning to most: stay away. To Garrick, however, it was another clue in his long standing quest.
If you asked him what his quest was, he would regale you with a swashbuckling story of knights and dragons and kidnapped queens. He was, of course, the hero. The literal knight in shining armor who was going to, or in some cases, already had, rescue the damsel in distress, take her hand in marriage and live the rest of his hopefully long life in peace and quiet. It was the only lie Sir Garrick ever told and he had been telling it for so long that not only had he forgotten what his actual quest was but also had begun to believe his own stories.
The farm had changed little since he had passed it months before – going the other way, mind you – and it still served well enough as a place to rest, skulls notwithstanding. They did bother him deeply; someone or something ahead of him had tied them to this fence for him to see. To tell him that, whoever they were, they knew. They knew everything. He worried as he saw to his horse, the only island of stability in his long journey. She neighed gently as he lay down some hay in front of her and nuzzled his hand for an apple she knew he had. He chuckled sadly and shook his head, “not tonight, I'm afraid,” leaving her to the much less desired hay.
Night fell, as it always did, and the other things behind him - the trackers, he called them - woke up from their nocturnal slumber and restarted their slow pace, following his scent, patiently and willing to wait until he made a mistake. He had never seen these creatures, only heard them in the dusk as the large moon rose and in the early haze of dawn, on those few days where an early start was preferable to a good sleep. These things, they scuffled in the gravel and brushed through the leaves. They would not stop until they had completed their quest, and in this he respected them.
Yet, no matter how much he let these mysterious creatures worry him, it was never enough for him or his horse to miss a nights sleep. And so for what he again wondered would be the last time, he closed his eyes and slept a dreamless sleep.
The land was vast and almost completely empty. Villages and farmland dotted the countryside and the sun shone benevolently above them. Here and there, stands of forests backed onto the farmland, creating places for the children to play during the sunlit hours and hosting make believe stories of horror and fear when the sun was gone. Water flowed in clear, strong rivers from the mountains, only a smudge on the horizon to most people.
But something moved in the forests. It could hear the villagers working, talking and laughing. It wasn't afraid of them, wary, but not afraid. It hid in the bushes, behind trees and under rocks. It moved when they moved and it was not heard by any of them. By the time the sun had reached its peak, it was on the edge of the forest, with only the farms between it and a village. It daren’t go any further but it desperately wanted to. As it wrestled with itself, the sun sunk low, touching the mountains so far away and shadows crept over the village, then the farms and then the forest where it stood. The creature didn't think, but if it could, it would have thought to use the darkness as a tool, to use the shadow as an ally and to sneak in during the days of the low moon.
Garrick awoke as the first tendrils of a new dawn spread onto his face. The light was new, and the day was full of optimism and hope. He washed and dressed and gathered his belongings, taking a small moment to feed the horse the apple he had deprived her of the night before to her great delight. She kicked happily and whinnied loudly before eating it far too quickly to enjoy it. Garrick didn't mind, he was just happy the old girl still had life left in her.
He loaded her up, sheathed his dented and chipped sword and as the last of the sun came out of hiding, they were on the road.
He remembered the farmlands ahead - wheat for the city, a weeks ride further on. He wondered how long before these farms were too far from the city to get their crops there before they spoiled. This led to wondering where the next nearest town was. This led to him scolding himself for stray thoughts. It was his quest that was important, not the cities of the land, or their wheat requirements. On the far side of the farms was one of the deep forests. The road led straight into it and he couldn't avoid the darkness waiting, despite there being no need to worry. The road was well marked and no harm had ever befallen someone on it, especially this close to the city.
He was just inside the forest, less than an hour after he entered, when he saw them. Three figures stood on a rock that jutted out over the road. They were all dressed in black robes and had skulls over their heads. The skull of the largest of the three had deer antlers growing out of it.
They made no noise and didn't move an inch, aside from watching Garrick pass underneath them. As he moved on and turned his head back to the road ahead, a loud keening wail issued from behind him. Garrick fought the urge to look back, but eventually gave in to his temptation.
The minute his gaze fell back onto the rock, the forest fell deathly quiet and the figures were gone.