From the Journals of Antonius of Jerbiton
The Year of our Order 1220, on the eighteenth day of the sixth month
A man from Swanage approached us today, by the name of Albert. He came seeking a loan to buy a farm from his half-brother, no less than 14£ 5s. The deed contains the rights to the blessed healing spring St. Pons pool, which we would be granted access to until the loan is paid off. The council agreed to lend him the sum, and both Neptin and Gurgeh are to travel with him and the monies to the trial in Studland.
The elderly Raspallion has come out of retirement to cover for Victor, our usual Redcap, who is supposedly ill. He seemed angry at us – for what reason, I could not tell. He delivered to our house a circular from Blackthorn to all the Tribunal, stating that they are planning to buy the pool, then he refused our hospitality and left. Most unusual. Vigilance will be required.
Jaime shifted nervously, holding the two impatient horses in check. The summer morning was already growing hot and uncomfortable, and it was yet some hours til noon. He watched the two cloaked figures picking their way from the shadow of the Manor through the muddy courtyard and tightened his grip on the reins. Lord Gurgeh and Lord Neptin. No horses for these two – no earthly steed would carry these two. They smelt the magic, and it made them fearful, and rightly so, thought Jaime. A short distance behind them lumbered Borbert, carrying a solid oaken chest in his bear-like hands, his feet making huge, deep impressions in the dirt. Jaime's eyes lingered on the chest, imagining the silver contained within, what he could do with such wealth... he looked up, and found himself staring straight into Gurgeh's eyes. The hooded figure smiled knowingly at him as he ambled down the path, his eyes glittering.
Flushing, Jaime quickly cast his gaze down, silently cursing himself. Best not to even think such thoughts – these damn magi can see into a man's mind, its said. Purposely avoiding that knowing gaze, He cast his gaze around at his company, the others who would be making this journey to Studland.
Siegfried sat stiff backed upon his charger, his face completely impassive, his eyes like shards of ice. Damn, he was a cold one, that Teutonic, thought Jaime. Handy with a blade though. As Jaime considered him, he slammed down the visor on his helm with a mailed fist, and gripped the pommel of his sword.
Behind him, Captains Sworder's brown horse shifted impatiently. Jaime shifted his gaze to the Captain as she leant down to pat the horse, making soothing noises. Every now and then he saw her eyes flicker over to the knight, glimpsing his armour and the Holy Cross on his tabard with a hint of envy. The Captain's ambition to become a knight was well known around the covenant, and many agreed that if it were not for the fact of her being of the fairer sex, she would have made a good one. She absent-mindedly raised a hand to her cheek, rubbing the oddly shaped scar there.
Woodrow was at the front of the caravan. Dressed in dusty travelling leathers, he sat easily on his thin, black horse, smoking from a long pipe, hood pulled over his eyes. Jaime caught the smell of strange herbs coming downwind from the woodsman, and wrinkled his nose. Jaime sighed. The woodsman's skill was legendary, but he was renowned for smiling little and saying less. Some company he would be.
The two magi were climbing into the back of the wagon. With a grunt (more of a roar), Borbert flexed his mighty muscles and heaved the chest onto the back of the cart. Jaime heard the jingle of silver, and cast his gaze down again. A few moments later, the cart began to rumble into action. Jaime turned to look at Borbert, who gave him a good natured growl through his thick brown beard. Shaking his head in disbelief, Jaime set off behind the wagon, marvelling at what company fate had brought him into at this Manor. From behind him he heard the heavy thump of Borbert's feet as the huge man broke into a slow jog.
After a few hundred feet the cart suddenly came to a halt. Jaime slowed, puzzled, as he watched Lord Neptin clamber out of the back. For a brief moment Neptin's watery eyes met his, and then he turned into the brush at the side of the trail. Lifting the front of his robes, he clasped his hands before him, and Jaime groaned inwardly as a thick jet of urine streamed forth into the shrub...
The Year of our Order 1220, on the twentieth day of the sixth month
Neptin and Gurgeh have left with the funds. They take with them the knight Siegfried, the forester Woodrow and Captain Sworder, so they are at least well defended - Woodrows keen eye will keep watch for trouble, and it would be a foolish robber who sets himself upon an armoured knight. Neptin takes his shield grog Borbert.They report an unusually large number of beggars on the road - a troubling sign.
Stopping at the Dusty Pony, the company encountered Octavo, a travelling advocate, who offered his services for the upcoming trial. Before negotiations could be concluded, however, Peter de Maulay's men arrived, accusing the innkeeper of unpaid debts of £5. Billy could not pay, and the Constables men evacuated the building and set it ablaze. Neptin reports he used magic to dampen the flames, but there was still some minor damage.
With Octavo in tow (at 6d a day), the company headed to Swanage for the trial. In the town square, Neptin encountered Hectorus, a Quaesitor of some repute, upbraiding a young woman of mysterious identity. Hectorus then interrogated Neptin as to his origins and intents, and delivered dire warnings on the repercussions of breaking the Code. Neptin and Borbert tracked the woman down to a two story townhouse on the north side, but could not manage to gain inconspicuous access.
Mulling over matters in the local inn, Captain Sworder overheard an excited courier talking about a message he had to deliver, and persuades him to have a drink and gossip. Realizing the message is heading for Blackthorn, she followed him outside and waylaid him, forcing him to give up the message. It turns out to appear as nothing more than a letter to a cousin about mundane matters - the edges of the paper seem cold to the touch. Suspicious, she took it back to the Inn, and after deliberating through the night, finally deciding to show Gurgeh.
Gurgeh, unnaccustomed to the early morning hours, nevertheless pierced the enchantment and confirmed that it was a message from the woman, who is Magi, to Blackthorn, describing the companies appearance and requesting help from Goliard. We are fortunate indeed it was intercepted...
Our delegation attended the trial that noon, while Siegfried and Borbert guarded our wagon. Octavo decisively won the case on our behalf - however, as the pronouncement was made, the local priest, Father Bernard, stepped forward and claimed the pool as a miracle working site that properly belonged to the church. The Magistrate agreed all too readily, to Octavo's ire - it is of that learned scholars opinion that the Magistrate had been bribed. Outraged, Oliver entered an appeal, and we convinced Albert to do the same. It is to be held at Corfe Castle, by the Constable himself, in one weeks time. The loser must pay a fine of 10s.
Later that day, the group went to view the pool, and discovered the identity of the Holy Hermit who dwells by the pool - none other than Margentius of Criamon. Not seen for many years, it is widely known he destroyed his lab, his research and all his devices and went into seclusion, Many thought him mad, but some few accused him of following the path of St. Nerius. Hectorus was also there, and it seems his true mission was to dog Margentius into confessing - a task with which he was having little success. Margentius welcomed the magi, and they spoke of St. Pons pool and its powers for some time. Margentius revealed Oliver and Father Bernard had a plan to exploit the pool for profit. He would teach us the secrets of gathering its vis, if we would but prevent it from being abused in this fashion. Margentius could prove a valuable ally.
On the return to the covenant, a mysterious stranger appeared on the road, insisting Gurgeh accompany him to see his father, a great scholar. Gurgeh, in his typical relaxed manner, left with the stranger, and we have not heard from him since. Neptin returned to his lab.
The Year of our Order 1220, on the twenty seventh day of the sixth month
Disaster! The appeal has been lost! Quite unexpectedly, Oliver came up with a brilliant counter argument to Octavo's last accusation, which won him the trial. Octavo is at our doors as we speak, with his bill. He reports that the farm has been granted to Oliver - however the Constable, who is crippled, has decided to verify the holiness of St. Pons pool by allowing it one last chance to heal his ailments. The healing takes place tommorow. Captain Sworder has gone to find Neptin in the hope there may be some way of still claiming a stake on the pool.
Captain Sworder found Neptin's dwarf entertaining some idle grogs. Their horseplay was soon dispersed by an angry glare from the Captain, and the contrite dwarf was soon dispatched with a message for Neptin - "Octavo has returned. The Appeal is lost."
Neptin soon emerged, and together they formulated a scheme to prevent the pool from healing the count. They convinced Wilmere, our ancient and affliction riddled blacksmith, to journey with them to Swanage, and with them went Siegfried, the Teutonic, who did not seem to fully understand what was happening.
The Year of our Order 1220, on the twenty eighth day of the sixth month
Alas, Wilmere's faltering pace meant that by the time the party reached St. Pons, word had spread and a large crowd had gathered, some camping overnight in order to witness the miracle. Neptin and his crew stayed near Margentius's hut - Father Bernard was there, as was Oliver and a broken looking Albert. Oliver was accompanied by a woman of noble birth - the same woman who Neptin and Borbert had tracked through Swanage a week earlier. Also present was the forbidding Quaesitor Hectorus, the wild strays who dog his steps cowed into silence by the presence of the Divine.
At noon, the Constables' coach arrived and the Constable was led to the pool by his physican. Suddenly, Margentius ran forth, shouting "Let me! Let me!". He baptised the Constable fully, and the blessed pool worked its magic - by Divine providence, Peter De Maulay, the Constable of Corfe Castle, was healed, once again standing straight and true, his back and legs untwisted and his eyes clear.
Soon after the crowd began to disperse, and Neptin sat for a time by the pool, conversing with Margentius, who told him the story of the Constable, and how the part the old magi had played in his false baptism had ever preyed upon his mind. When all but the two magi (and old Wilmere, who was dozing in the summer sun) were gone, a bird flew down from the trees and turned into a young woman, who Margentius introduced as Thora, his Filius. She said little, but watched shyly. Margentius asked that she might be admitted to the Covenant of New Road, that she might remain close to the pool when he was gone. Neptin agreed, and thus Thora of Criamon became one of the Council.
It was then that the stranger approached. Dressed in the shimmering blue black robes of the Tremere. He introduced himself as Septcundus Nova Tremendi, and then Neptin knew him, and his guard sprang up, for Septcundus was the pupil of the Archmage Strauss, and a reknowned master of the mind.
Septcundus asked a series of pointed questions in a strangely innocuous tone, concerning Oliver and his whereabouts, which Neptin bemusedly answered, and then turned to take his leave. Neptin and Thora hurried after him, and the three forged a hasty alliance to gain the pool, with Septcundus also being sworn onto the council.
The three magi went to Olivers house in Swanage, but Septcundus' strange manner irritated him greatly, and he turned them out. Unwilling to use their magic, the magi returned to New Road, where they sought out the aid of Fargo, their wealthy patron. Tempted by the prospect of another prosperous farm, Fargo took out a loan for £9, and he and Siegfried went to deal with Oliver the next day, purchasing the farm for £21 and naming the magi as guardians. And so, the pool was won - although Blackthorn will surely seek to contest our claim come next Tribunal...
The Year of our Order 1220, on the 3rd day of the seventh month
Margentius and Hectorus came to the Covenant today. Margentius brought with him the silver sieve we must use to harvest the Vis from the pool, and formally handed the guardianship of the pool to Thora, on behalf of New Road. Hectorus witnessed the agreement, recording it in a large ledger. Margentius then agreed to attend the next Tribunal to renew his oath to the Order, which mollified Hectorus somewhat. His testimony will be a valuable asset to us in the inevitable coming conflict with Blackthorn.
From the Journals of Antonius of Jerbiton
The Year of our Order 1221, on the 22nd day of the seventh month
The Constable of Corfe Castle has invited us to send representatives of our Household to his Hunt, one weeks hence. He also expressed admiration for our new tower - it seems our expansion has not gone unnoticed. It would be advantageous to maintain good relations with him, but it is rumoured that the Constable is close to open defiance of the Crown, and he may be seeking to count his allies - or potential enemies. We should choose our representatives carefully - mishandling this situation may give our enemies at Tribunal ammunition to accuse us of meddling in the affairs of mundanes.
With one final sigh to steel himself, Kaldan pushed open the door to Fargo’s opulent chambers. As expected, the merchant’s huge bulk reclined in a large, elaborate chair; his head tipped back guzzling as the servant boy Henry carefully held an ornate cup of wine to his fat lips. As the knight entered, the serving boy looked up excitedly, his eyes wide with silent awe. Fargo pushed the cup away and smiled obsequiously, inclining his head and spreading his pudgy hands in a welcoming gesture.
“Ah, welcome Sir knight!” Fargo bobbed and fawned from his comfortable chair. “So gracious of you to attend.” Kaldan gave a curt nod, betraying no emotion through his closed helmet, and stared straight ahead. Both he and Fargo knew that since the fire he had little claim to calling himself knight, save his mount, his armour and his title of “Sir.” Fargo seemed to take great relish in using it, Kaldan was fairly certain, as a refined form of mockery.
Fargo beckoned the knight forwards, and called for more wine. The servant boy, still gaping at Kaldan, tipped the cup awkwardly, and wine spilt down Fargo’s many chins and onto his fine robes. Fargo shrieked and heaved himself to his feet, his ornate walking stick raised high in anger.
Henry managed a few stuttered words before the stick came down hard on his head. There was a loud crack, and he fell to the floor. “Idiot boy!” roared Fargo, as the stick came down again and again. “Don’t you realise that this tabard cost more than your wretched village is worth, little fool?”
The stick rose again, and was caught by a mailed fist. Fargo turned to look incredulously down his immobilised arm, into a blank steel visor.
“Enough.” Kaldan’s word fell into place like a tombstone.
Fargo flushed a deep and ugly red, his eyes narrowing like a snake. “You dare...”
Kaldan said nothing. His grip remained like solid iron. Henry watched from the floor, too afraid to move.
Fargo glared at the knight, and then dropped the stick with a queasy smile. “How charming, that you have retained your knightly graces, despite your... misfortunes. It matters not – we have more important matters to discuss than mere serfs. Get out, boy!” He shouted at Henry as he wriggled out of the knights grasp. Kaldan turned away, surreptitiously wiping his hand on his chest in disgust. When he turned back, Fargo was once again ensconced in his chair.
“As you may have heard, our good friend the Constable is holding a boar hunt. What you may have not heard, given your, shall we say, reduced circumstances...” Fargo oozed with mock sympathy.
“Get on with it.” growled Kaldan.
Fargo leaned back, satisfied he had touched a nerve. “...is that our good friend Peter de Maulay is within a hairs breadth of rebelling against the boy King Henry. He is claiming custody of Corfe until Henry comes of age, and no doubt this hunt is but a thinly veiled excuse to seek political allies. Keep your ears and eyes open, Sir knight. As far as that helmet of yours will allow, anyway.”
Kaldan paused for a moment, and then nodded. “If that’s all?” he muttered with as much grace as he could muster.
“Hmm? Yes, yes, you may go, Sir knight.” Fargo’s attention had switched to his stained tabard, which he was dabbing with a cloth. He languidly waved the knight away as he rubbed at the dark red stains at his breast.
Kaldan turned and left without another word. He let out a deep breath as he closed the door behind him, and slowly unclenched his fists. Looking up, he saw Antonius seated on a bench nearby, grinning as he played with a small wooden puppet, making it jig and dance. Antonius looked up with a smile and winked. Kaldan decided to head in the opposite direction - he had had enough intrigue this day.
The Year of our Order 1221, on the 16th day of the eighth month
Duffus has returned, alone. The dwarf claims that Thora and her party did not return from the forest where they went to hunt the boar. The other hunters were less than pleased, and did not treat the dwarf kindly. Their horses have been taken into the Constables custody.
From the letters of Brother Luc of the Cistercians,
In the year of our Lord 1223
My dear reader, I have a sad and terrible tale to tell, of the death of a great and pious man at the hands of the foul sorcerer known as Septcundus Nova, may his name be cursed for all time.
The great knight Sir Gilbert now lies crushed by rock, far below the darkened earth. My noble Lord Gilbert was set upon slaying the dragon that has haunted Lulworth for centuries past, and I too had sensed an evil presence below the hill, that somehow meant harm to our King. We had been camped at its base for some weeks, attempting to pass through the sorcerous forest which protected its peaks. When the magi approached our camp, Gilbert received them cordially, and despite my great apprehension, I thought that maybe these strange men were sent from God, to aid us in our quest. How wrong I was.
They led us through the forest, and its talking beasts and other such wicked things, and took us through the damned houses of the fey, who are not Gods children. We came to a great well that we believed to be the lair of the dragon, and it was there that this sorceror, Septcundus Nova, revealed the full depths of his depravity. Here is a man who blew great holes in the earth at a touch with reckless glee, wide enough for a man to walk through. Metal and wood rotted at his unholy gesture, and he showed no love or humility to God.
I will not speak of the evils we saw in that place - suffice to say that eventually we came to see that the Dragon was but a statue. I counselled a retreat, but the cursed wizards had by this time enchanted my noble Lord, and in that dank and Godless place, I could not reach him. We continued on far below the earth, until Nova the thrice cursed collapsed the ceiling with his magicks. Brave Lord Gilbert was caught under the rocks, as well as his noble squire Paul, a boy who had not yet seen sixteen winters.
It was then that I fled from that cursed place, praying as I had never prayed before, and it was only through the providence of our Lord that we managed to escape, in the company of Gilberts remaining men and a knight who I was able to free from the sorcerors enchantments.
Does it not say in the bible, Thou shall not suffer a witch to live? This unholy man, this sorceror, is an abomination - I call upon all good and pious men to denounce this vile serpent, and look to his destruction, lest he collapse our castles and cathedrals around our heads.
"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I will repay."
It was unmistakable now - the giggling and spluttering coming from deep below the earth, drawing closer with every passing second. Thora watched desperately as Gurgeh mumbled and muttered over the spell of protection, his head bowed deep in concentration. A bead of sweat ran down the magi's forehead and dripped off the end of his nose as the cool morning air grew oppressively hot around them. Gurgeh traced a circle in the dirt and then rose to his feet, absently mindedly dusting off his knees.
"There, it's done. I'm sure we'll be fine now." Gurgeh smiled calmly at the rest of the group, who seemed to be staring past him, their expressions frozen in horror.
With slow, terrible majesty, Pitsdim rose out of the pit, his arms hung wide as if in a gesture of welcome. Through the rippling heat haze his eyes burned like coals set deep in his skull. The apparition's mouth split into an insane grin, maniacal laughter bubbling up through his cracked and missing teeth.
Pale as a ghost himself, Septcundus cautiously approached the pit, stumbling slightly on the uneven earth, his usual sneer entirely absent in the face of the apparitions fury. Pitsdim craned his head down to regard the thin, pale figure beneath him. Holding his gaze steady in the blazing heat, Septcundus nervously cleared his throat and bowed deeply before the spectre.
"Hail the great Lord Magister Pitsdim, Flame of Calebais! Mighty lord, pray hold your fire. We are here to join forces, and help burn your traitor enemies to ash!"
There was a long silence. Slowly, Pitsdim grinned... and then frowned, and sniffed the air. His coal black eyes narrowed as he sensed the pull of magic woven into the Tremendi's words. "Trickery, is that the way of it? The weapon of cowards! Worms! BURN, and be judged in the eternal fire! ALL... SHALL... PERISH!" Pitsdim roared with fury. "Burn, flies! BURN! DIE! AHAHAHAHAH!!"
With these last words, great arcs of searing flame sprang from Pitsdim's hands, crashing into the small party like falling stars. There was a blinding flash - the fire shield Gurgeh had conjured up rippled and then gave way to the flaming bolts, and Eleanor staggered backwards with a cry, dropping her flaming hot sword to clutch at her eyes. From his hiding place amongst the trees, Woodrow came running to pull the struggling captain back to safety, knowing that neither of them had a weapon that could harm such a creature. This battle was in the hands of the magi now. God help them all.
Septcundus picked himself up out of the dirt, beating out his burning robes with blistered hands. Gasping for air through his ravaged throat, he squinted through the heat haze to see Gurgeh staggering to his feet, his hands twisting through the complex motions of spellcasting. He caught Septcundus' eye and nodded confidently. Septcundus felt his heart leap up into his throat.
With a final incantation, Gurgeh flung out his arms at Pitsdim. Nothing happened. "Hmmm." Gurgeh looked puzzled. He held his hands up in front of his face and regarding his fingers, which seemed to be crumbling into a fine powder. "Oops." With an expression of mild surprise he turned to Septcundus, shrugged, and dissolved into sand.
Drawing a ragged breath, Septcundus swung round to face Pitsdim. Almost choking, he called out more words of power as Pitsdim roared in outrage. He felt another burst of flame break through the shield and wash over him.
Septcundus crumpled to the floor like a rag doll, howling with pain as the fire set every nerve ending alight with searing, razor sharp agony. The flames burrowed deep into the core of him, sweeping through veins and arteries, greedily consuming, devouring his essence all the way to the wizards core... where the Wolf lay.
In the ravaged core of the Tremendi wizard, the Wolf lay in the darkness on its side, breathing shallowly. The Snake coiled tightly around its legs, its arms, its throat, as intimate as a lover. The battle between the two entities had long been lost and now, covered in innumerable bloody cuts and bites, the Snake hissing mockingly in its ear, the Wolf lay breathing shallowly and waited for death.
Flames rushed in. The Snake hissed. Feebly, the Wolf opened an eye.
Its lip curled back in a snarl.
Septcundus opened his eyes.
The wizard's night blue robes hung in shreds, his skin raw and smoking. Looking up, he saw Pitsdim hovering above him, a hazy grey image now, blinking and unfocused. Drawing a ragged breath, Septcundus summoned his last vestiges of power. Eyes tightly shut, he muttered the magical formula's with the fervency of prayer, all the while waiting for the flames to wash around him and consume the last of him utterly. He felt the ghost's will set against him, holding firm... and then wavering... and finally, blessedly, breaking.
The ghostly flames flickered and died, letting air rush in to everyone's lungs. The hazy old spectre bowed his head, hanging in mid-air, and glowered at Septcundus, looking for all the world like a sullen, defeated child. "What is your wish then... worm?"
Septcundus rose to his feet slowly and imperiously, eyes glinting with triumph as he regarded the defeated ghost with chin held high. "The Bell of Ibyn. You know the way, don't you old spirit? Take me there."
Pitsdim paused, and then threw back his head and boomed with laughter. Still laughing, he drifted forward and dived straight at Septcundus, disappearing into his chest. Gasping, Septcundus stumbled back as if pushed, and then slowly straightened up.
Turning to look over his shoulder, his eyes flickering with tiny flames, he smirked. With that last look, Septcundus turned and stepped into the pit.
- Last sighting of Septcundus Nova Tremendi, Winter 1228AD
"T-that one... a-a-and t-that one... oh yes, here, this o-o-one, certainly..." Edward the White carefully picked his way across the cavernous chamber, his shoulders hunched, his eyes glowing faintly in the gloom. Trailing him to either side, fearful grogs plucked seemingly innocuous bits of debris - bones, plants stems, bits of glassy stone - from the swathes that littered the floor, bundling them into rough cloth sacks and pouches.
Bruised and weary, Eleanor watched as the failed apprentice hobbled about. Both fear and natural reticence had apparently been forgotten in his excitement over the chambers contents - he had even allowed his hood to fall back, exposing the horrific burns that covered the side of his face from temple to jaw. She cast a troubled eye over the battered remnants of her Turb. Too many lost, she thought bitterly. Lost on this madmans venture, following a man wearing faerie shoes.
The captain thought of the men left behind with the wagon at the foot of the narrow, winding stone stairs that led high into the mountain, their pale faces staring up as they disappeared into the smog. She remembered the hail of fist-sized stones that fell upon them like a storm when they reached the summit, and how one had split Red Eoghans head open like an overripe fruit before Sir Guillaume, stones battering at his heavy steel armour, had cleared the barricade of fallen rock which clogged the entrance. Once inside, creeping along the tunnels by wizard light, more men had been crushed by falling stones, or run screaming into the darkness chased by twisted little men with grotesquely bulging eyes. Leo and Josef they had later found lying in pits, their necks broken. Some they never found at all. They were still out there, somewhere in the darkness.
Eleanor looked over at Gurgeh. Rubbing his chin with a faraway look in his eyes, he seemed to be deeply intent on a large, ornate and empty book-stand. Either that or he was simply daydreaming. Having known the wizard for some years, she knew this was entirely possible. The captain shook her head in wonder. She had always half-suspected Gurgeh of being some kind of lazy mystic charlatan, but this journey had put paid to that. Gurgeh had shielded them from the rains of stones and collapsing ceilings that threatened to crush them with every step, and blown apart the rocks when they had become trapped by cave-ins. He had dispersed the poisonous fumes that threatened to choke them with a wave of his hand, and when they grew lost in the winding warren, he had raised his hands, and a flock of white birds had come bursting forth from his sleeves, leading them to this very chamber. The grogs, who had often scoffed and chuckled at the absent-minded and affable scholar behind his back, now regarded him with awe and something almost approaching reverence, though they still held little love for him and crossed themselves in his wake. If not for the wizards magic, they would have all died in the darkness many times over. Then again, said a voice in Eleanor's head, if not for the wizard we might not have ever come here to this God-forsaken place, to die like flies. Around her, there was more gold than a hundred men could carry glittering amongst the darkness, enough to make them as rich as the greatest lords in England, but it was all for naught if they did not survive the journey home. But it is not gold the wizard has come for.
The captain tightened her grip on her sword. "Magister," she called out. Her voice echoed oddly in the cavernous chamber. Gurgeh blinked, and ponderously turned his gaze towards her, his expression blank. He seemed to take a moment to recognise her, and then smiled his usual amiable smile, his head bobbing gently.
"Make haste, if you will. Too many of my men are dead or lost. It is no time for daydreams." said the captain.
"Leave?! Nonsense!" Sir Guillaume came clanking up and lifted his ornate visor. "What about the dragon? I'll not have it said that Sir Guillaume of Comminges fled craven from an oversized lizard!" The knight swung about boisterously, rattling his sword and scouting every corner. He lifted a broken chair leg and peered under it, as if a dragon might be hiding there. Guillaume had not shown a trace of fear throughout the whole journey - he seemed utterly convinced that God would protect him from any possible danger and they would all be tucked up in some roadside tavern by dusk, eating roast chicken and drinking good brown ale. Eleanor was beginning to suspect that he did not entirely comprehend where they were or what was going on, and that despite his great skill at arms Sir Guillaume had perhaps taken one too many blows to the head during his illustrious career.
"We are not here to slay a dragon, Sir. That part has been taken care of. By you, less than a moons turn ago." Eleanor took care to speak slowly and carefully, so as not to confuse the towering knight. "Outside the Veil. With the blade that Hastus forged." Eleanor continued, trying to jog his memory. "You are holding it in your hand at the moment."
"Oh." Guillaume looked down at the sword. "Oh! Aye, I did, didn't I?!" The knight beamed proudly. "So, we're here to kill another one?"
Eleanor shook her head, and the knights smile melted, his shoulders slumping with disappointment. "Oh. Well, what are we doing here then?"
"The book." Gurgeh had gone back to staring disconsolately at the empty book-stand. "Sigusens Tome. Imagine it... a dragons perspective of the nature of the universe... I even helped him write some of it. But now...hmm... it's not here. Its been... moved." He spoke as if he had just comprehended the fact, and turned to look at them with wide, sad eyes, like an upset child waiting for someone to tell him what to do next. The others stared back at him uncertainly.
"O-oh! Oh, m-m-my..." Edward's stammered exclamation came from across the chamber, where he was kneeling amidst the rubble. He rose to his feet slowly, holding an orb of green glass. "N-n-now there's a f-fine piece. H-h-hastus will be most p-p-pleased, yes..."
As Edward turned the orb over in his hands, a shrill, nasal voice echoed out from the darkness. "Thief!" it screeched, "Thief, I call you! Sees too much, this one does, said and true! PUT HIS EYES OUT!" A jagged rock on the floor went spinning up into the air and caught Edward under the chin as he cast his startled gaze about, looking for his accuser. His head snapped back, and he reeled and fell to the ground, unmoving. The orb rolled out of his outstretched hand.
Cursing, the grogs scrambled to their feet, swords and spears in hand, searching the shadows at the edge of the wizard light. Armstrong and some of the other fighting men made a protective circle around Edward, shields raised, while Skinny Thom the woodsman knelt to inspect his wound. "There!" shouted Eleanor, pointing across the room. Guillaume followed her shocked gaze and hollered as he saw a small ugly face poking out from behind a crevice. The creatures eyes bulged horribly as the knight went barrelling towards it, armour clanking and rattling. It tried to scuttle away on its little legs, but Guillaume caught it by the scruff of the neck and hoisted it up to the light. The little man twisted and writhed in his grip, legs kicking wildly at the empty air. "No!" it shrieked. "Let go!"
"Small chance of that." Guillaume regarded the wriggling creature with disgust. "Who in God's name are you? What are you up to, scuttling about in the dark?" The creature spat and hissed like an angry cat, and when it's eyes began to bulge again Guillaume gave it a good hard shake. The little man squawked with dismay.
Gurgeh hunched down and peered closely at the creature, holding up his wizard light. "Hmmm... a dwarf of some kind, seems like. One of the fey folk who dwell underground. They weren't here before. Interesting." Rubbing his chin, the wizard tottered off to kneel beside Edward, the grogs parting hastily to allow his passage.
Eleanor stepped closer to the dangling thing. Whatever it was, it was caked in grime and stank of old sour sweat. Eleanor wrinkled her nose. "Answer the question then, dwarf. What are you doing here?" The captain's tone brooked no argument. The dwarf hung in sullen silence, and then began to laugh.
"Enough!" growled Guillaume. He knelt and slammed the little dwarf to the ground, pulling out the cross of St. George and holding it up to its face. "Mercy!" the dwarf screamed when it saw the holy cross. "Mercy, I beg you!" It thrashed wildly, twisting desperately away from the Christian symbol.
Eleanor knelt beside it, her face dark with anger. "Mercy such as you showed my men? You slew them in the dark with cowards tricks, you little wretch. Answer, in the name of Christ! Who are you? What is your business here?"
Compelled by the power of the cross, the dwarf spoke. "Hunfrid is my name, said and true, and beyond the shadows lurk my kin. Once we dwelt in the hills of Simonside, and Roarie was our king, but that was long ago. A small band we are now, and the dragon is our master. Bound we are, to guard against trespassers."
Guillaume shook the dwarf again. "Your master is dead, dwarf. The dragon Sigusen lies slain by my own hand, with this very blade, and his hellish brood scattered to the four winds. Even now, his carcass lies rotting in our holdfast beyond the Veil. I think." He gave a quizzical look to Eleanor, who nodded her confirmation, then glared back at the dwarf triumphantly.
"The knight speaks true," said Eleanor. "Sigusen is dead and his sons scattered. You have no master now. You and your band are free. Let us pass unhindered, and no harm need come to you."
The dwarf stared at them for a long time, its expression unreadable. Slowly, an ugly smile began to creep over its face, and then it threw back its head and cackled with fits of laughter. Other voices joined in from the darkness, a cacophony of sniggering and jeering that seemed to come from all directions at once. Eleanor looked around, her expression cold and hard. "What fools you are, said and true, to believe the master slain by the likes of you!" sneered the dwarf. "Old was our master when Caesar first came in his long ships to set foot in Britain. The dragon is wiser and more cunning than any mortal man can hope to be. The master sees all, knows all. And how sweetly do you dance to his tune!"
The voices beyond the darkness hooted and hissed, becoming deeper, angrier. The little dwarf continued. "Hear me, and hear me well, children of Adam. You are ignorant like all your kind, and do know not what great insult you deal us, coming here and taking that which does not belong to you. Leave this place. Leave our halls and return to the lands of men. If you will not, we will kill your wizard and mount his head on a stick. The rest of you will wander blind and starving, and one by one shall we hunt you, said and true, killing each in the dark and eating the flesh while the rest listen to the screams. And when our lord returns, he will make himself a nest of your bones, and there you will remain, forgotten by all, forever in darkness."
Eleanor's gaze flickered involuntarily over to Gurgeh, who was cradling Edwards head gently in his hands and humming in a low voice. The dwarf speaks true, she thought grimly. If the wizard dies, we will never leave this place. She thought about how long it had been since she'd seen sunlight, and breathed sweet clean sea air of the cove - it felt like years ago, another lifetime.
Guillaume shook his head darkly. "A wicked thing this, and heathen too. And the stench of it! Like meat gone rotten. No good can come of bandying words with such a creature." Eleanor nodded grimly, looking down with disgust at the squirming thing as she rose to her feet. She remembered her men, running screaming into the darkness to die, and how the creatures had laughed as they capered after them. "Make an end of it."
Intoning a solemn prayer, the knight wrapped his huge mailed fist around the dwarfs skinny neck and snapped it like a twig. The dwarf croaked, eyes bulging, and lay still. As the knight pushed himself to his feet, its body seemed to curl up into itself, shrinking even smaller, it's skin turning from maggoty yellow to a lifeless grey. There was a terrible hush... and then screaming and wailing voices screeched from the shadows, and rocks came flying from all directions. "Murderers! Brigands! Kill the wizard! Die in darkness! Kill the wizard!"
A huge jagged rock the size of a roast chicken hurtled towards Gurgeh, and bounced off this shoulder. He seemed not to have noticed. Another one, sharp as a dagger, bounced off his back and went spinning off into the debris. The third hit his face and bounced down into his hand. "Hmmm..." said Gurgeh, and rose slowly to his feet. Men cowered behind battered shields as he ambled towards the fallen dwarf, rocks of all shapes and sizes pelting him from all directions and each one bouncing harmlessly off him and rolling away. The voices in the dark howled in fury, but try as they might, they could make no mark upon the wizard. They muttered darkly amongst themselves, and subsided into angry silence.
The wizard knelt by the pitifully shrunken corpse, taking a knife from Skinny Thom, who had been hiding under a broken cartwheel. The hunter watched in horrified fascination as Gurgeh, mumbling unintelligibly, plucked one of the dwarfs bulging eyes out and cut through the veins that bound it to the skull. Nodding graciously, Gurgeh handed the knife back and slipped the eyeball into one of the many pouches about his belt. Thom retreated with a mumbled "M'lord", bobbing his head and holding the knife with his fingertips as if it were some rotting animal.
Gurgeh rose to his feet once more, absently dusting off his robes. The others looked at him in stunned silence. "It must be here somewhere..." he said to nobody in particular. He held the stone in his hand aloft. "Creo Ignem," he whispered, and a bright white light flared up, illuminating in stark relief the four rocky tunnels which twisted away from the chamber into darkness. The others blinked and shielded their eyes as the wizard turned in a slow circle, his mouth working silently as if doing sums under his breath. Suddenly he stopped, nodded to himself, and wordlessly ambled off towards one of the tunnels.
Guillaume clapped his visor shut. "Seems that's the way, then!" He boomed cheerfully. He clapped Eleanor on the shoulder and strode off after the wizard.
Eleanor shook her head. The greatest mind and the greatest sword arm we have, and not a drop of common sense between them, she thought ruefully. "Thom. Armstrong. Go with them. Make sure the wizard gets back in one piece, if you want to see daylight again." The two grogs nodded and hustled after the sound of Guillaume clanking footsteps. She watched the four of them turn a corner and disappear into the dark.
The door to the Tower of Shadows opened slowly, as if caught in a breeze, and shut again with a faint thump. A few seconds later, a figure faded slowly into view. Herrick pulled down his hood, his expression blank, his eyes glowing softly in the gloom.
All was dim, tiny points of light here and there casting long, thick shadows. Ornate furniture huddled in the darkness. Ahead of him lay a white stone staircase which twisted around and upside down like a great serpent, coiling around the inside of the tower and disappearing into darkness far above. Into the wall above the base of the stairs was cut a little alcove, and inside it stood a band of little wooden men, each bearing a tiny instrument. As Herrick watched, a spotlight flared up on them, and they floated to their feet. Tinny music began to play, cheerful but slightly off key as they jerked and bobbed around, their painted smiles fixed on Herrick.
Another spotlight appeared, illuminating a brightly coloured puppet who came bobbing towards him with an unconvincing floaty walk, the spotlight following as if operated by some unseen and unsteady hand. It halted a few feet away from Herrick and raised its little wooden cap politely.
"Welcome, visitor!" It's wooden mouth rattled open and shut, out of sync with the tinny, nasal voice which came out of it. "I'm afraid Master Arcadius is out on business at the moment, but perhaps you'd care to leave a message?" The little servant gestured awkwardly to a nearby figure made of intricate bands of metal, its lower half built in to a small desk. With smooth, robotic movement it dipped a quill into a pot of ink and bent over a parchment laid in front of it. It looked at Herrick with its smooth, expressionless mask, quill poised in readiness.
Herrick frowned, and waved a hand. The desk splintered and cracked, turning black with rot and collapsing. There was a shriek of metal as the scribe buckled in on itself, warping on the spot until it fell into a twisted, useless heap.
Shrieking in fear, the little servant spun round and tried to bob away, getting about four floaty steps before Herrick stepped on its back. Picking it up with rough, callused hands, he slowly twisted it apart, the wood rotting and cracking at his touch while the band continued their merry ditty. They continued to play as he destroyed them, the music dying away as they twitched and lay still and broken.
In silence, Herrick made his way up the stairs. The tower seemed to have no rhyme or reason - corridors stretched away at odd angles, lit only by flickering candles, and the doors leaned and stooped crazily, no two alike. He went past chairs attached to walls, and tables attached to ceilings, shelves and trapdoors dotted well beyond where any human might reach them. As he walked, spotlights would light up and illuminate more little puppets going through their jerky routines. Herrick ignored them. He could sense what he was looking for. He was getting close now.
He turned a corner and came to a short, fat door made of stout oak. There was a heavy lock on the outside, and two painted wooden soldiers stood stiffly to either side. With a gesture Herrick reduced them to splinters, and took the lock in his hand. Rust spread out from his touch, and within seconds it fell away, useless and broken. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The dwarf sat against the wall, wrapped up in so much thick chain that only its ugly face was visible sticking out of the top. It squinted groggily up at Herrick. "Master...?" it croaked.
"Not yet," said Herrick, his voice deep and gravelly. "But he is coming. Hastus is gone, Antonius is gone... it is time." He stared at his feet. "I... I've put this off for far too long."
Herrick touched the dwarfs chains, and they fell aside like mouldy old rope. The dwarf spilled out and sprang to his feet, peering up at Herrick intently. "What was stolen must be taken back," it spat. "The thieves must pay, said and true."
"Thieves?" Herrick gave the dwarf a long stare. "Hear me, dwarf. This is not about gold". He leaned closer. "The Order slew my brothers and sisters, the only family I ever knew. We swore their oaths, we followed their Code, and in return they slew our entire House, every apprentice, every familiar, every man, woman and child. Slaughtered, and the corpses burnt to ash, until no trace of us was left. Our sigil is stricken from the Quaesitors records. They thought to wipe all trace of us from history. They called this extermination justice, to hide from the shame of their sins." His voice lowered to a growl. "Well... there is still a trace of House Diedne left here, standing before you. I will show them justice. I will show them what it means to be hunted like beasts."
Herrick was roaring now, eyes bulging, spit flying from his mouth, speaking with many voices instead of one. The dwarf cowered at his sudden fury, grovelling at Herricks feet as his voice became a gale. "We shall last as long as the wind blows hot on the back of your necks, as long as storms pound your tower walls, as long as waves smash the sides of your ships, as long as the merciless sun looks down upon your abominations, sees your sins and call out for vengeance! I am Herrick of House Diedne, and I am Llewellyns curse made flesh!"
Slowly, carefully, the dwarf crept to his feet as the tirade ended. Herrick stood breathing raggedly, staring into the middle distance as if seeing events long past, his eyes wild. A solitary tear ran down his cheek and into his ragged beard. He blinked, focused on the dwarf and took a deep breath. A heartbeat later his expression was blank, unreadable.
"Come," he said. "We have work to do."
Barefoot and dressed in rags, he walked.
Days blended into weeks and still he went on, his feet covered in cuts and blisters, his knees scraped raw. Still ever onwards, he walked. And walked. And walked.
The road had given way to a winding trail some miles back, and the trees grew thicker and larger, looming overhead as he made his way. Slowly the sun dipped behind the horizon, and the shadows grew long. Still he walked on. There would be no rest for him this night. Perhaps there would be no rest for him ever again.
After some time, the path gave way to a clearing. Four rough looking men were skinning a deer while another tended a small fire. They were armed, and dressed in ragged furs and boiled leather. As the traveller walked towards them, they cursed and drew their knives. The man tending the fire eyed him shrewdly.
"Well now, who's this? Walking alone in the forest at night, eh?" He clapped his knees, pushed himself to his feet with a grunt, and walked slowly towards the traveller, hand resting easily on the hilt of his longsword. "You should be careful, man. There might be bad folk about." He grinned, his teeth black and broken.
One of the skinners grabbed the traveller roughly, yanking him hard by his ragged hood and pressing a knife up against his throat. He felt the skinners hot, fetid breath against his neck while a stooped blonde man rifled through his rags. He said no word, offered no resistance. The blonde man looked back and shrugged at the firekeeper.
"No weapon, no purse. Some stinking beggar, looks like."
The firekeeper shook his head, grinning. "What would a beggar be doing in the forest? There's not many alms to be had round here, lad. None at all, in truth. Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The traveller twisted his head round. He looked at each of the men in turn, and turned to the firekeeper. "I'm the greatest swordsman in the world." he hissed.
The firekeeper looked him slowly up and down, at the tattered rags, the bare blistered feet, the muddy, shivering scarecrow with scratched and bloody knees, and bellowed with laughter. The others joined in, snorting and jeering to each other. More men crept out of the trees, moving into the firelight to join in the mockery. In all there were a dozen, maybe more, hard and cruel men with cold eyes.
"Is that right?" Laughed the firekeeper through his blackened teeth. "Oh, well this I must see, with me own eyes too, thats for sure!" He pulled his longsword clear of its scabbard, its blade glinting in the moonlight. "The greatest swordsman in the world, eh? Give him a sword then, lads!"
The men formed a ring. A nicked and well used sword was thrust into the travellers hand and he was shoved into the center, where the grinning firekeeper circled him like a cat. He prodded the traveller with his blade, leering in the firelight. "Come on then, man. Lets see what you can do."
The traveller swung forward, his blade moving at blinding speed. The firekeeper stumbled backwards, his grin turning to astonishment as his blade was sent spinning through the air. The traveller spun and sliced upwards, and suddenly the firekeeper howled as his ear came flying off in a spray of blood. He raised his hand to fend off the blade, gaping like a fish, and the blade swished left, slicing off his fingers to the knuckle. He fell to one knee, clutching his bleeding hand, and stared up at traveller with rage and disbelief. "Bastard! Kill him! Kill him!" He snarled.
A big man came lumbering in with his hand axe raised, bellowing lustily. In the blink of an eye his forearm lay on the ground, still clutching the axe as its owner screamed, blood pumping from his bloody stump. Two more came with knives and seconds later went to their knees, one clutching a severed throat and another trying to hold his entrails in. The travellers blade went left and right, and men screamed and bled like pigs being slaughtered.
Less that a minute later, and six of the bandits were left standing. The traveller stood before them as the others lay about him, the wounded and the dead. They looked at each other in disbelief, and then as one dropped their weapons to the ground. "Mercy." called out one of them, his face pale in the moonlight.
"That is no longer something I can offer." The traveller slowly drew himself up, stiff and imperious. "Hear me. You are my men now, all of you."
They nodded eagerly, fearfully. "But... but whom is it we serve, m-my lord?" A small, rat faced man stammered.
The traveller paused a moment, frowning, and then a slow smirk spread over his face. His eyes were two hollow pits of darkness. "You serve me, and I am the greatest leader in the world. And you shall know me as Avon."