When Hope is Lost to Flame
By Alex White.
"Sir, I think
I see something!" the guard shouted out.
Standing on the top of the battlements, the young soldier waved frantically to his guard captain. His name was Tallas, only recently recruited into the service of the lord of the manor, Sir Cathell. Tallas was pointing out to the small hill, some distance away from the manor, by the time that the captain had reached him. Several other soldiers were running towards them, as the captain, a veteran called Ceridwen. Peering into the deep red of the setting sun, the captain made out five black spots, motionless on the top of the hill.
"Valerin, run to Sir Cathell," Ceridwen ordered, " Tell him that the Black Knights are approaching." Saluting, the messenger ran down the narrow stairs towards the keep. Tallas looked at the captain and stood to attention. His Adam's apple bobbed nervously as he awaited orders from the captain.
"Sir, what do you want me to do?"
"Keep on watching them. If they move, tell me. I'll need to go and see his lordship." Ceridwen started walking down the dark stone stairs of the outer wall, adjusting his leather gauntlets.
Using his hand to block the dying rays of the sun, Tallas squinted at the dark shapes, some three leagues away. He had not asked to be soldier, but when Sir Cathell's man had come to the town of Cavershal, to the north, most of the young men had enlisted. Not wanting to be teased, Tallas had joined up as well. He was the only one out of the thirty boys who joined, to end up being posted in the manor of the lord. Suddenly thrust into a society of highly disciplined, professional soldiers, most of whom where mercenaries, Tallas had found it hard to adjust to the life in a fort. Now, only a month before his annual leave, news had arrived from the small village of Dunnbarrow that a small group of five Dragwynian Knights took control of the village.
Tallas shivered in the chill autumn wind. The Church of Dragwyn banned in most of the lands of Pela Orso, the civilised lands. However, the Church had survived a ruthless persecution by the faithful of the One God and the mysterious Gorlon, god of Death, not only thriving, but also carving out a small nation far to the south where they had been growing strong. This was not the first time that Black Knights of Dragwyn had rode the lands of Pela Orso, a small war being fought with them only ten years before. It had ended in a stalemate, the small kingdom of the Dragwyns not able to fund their armies and the harsh terrain of the Southern Wastes unsuitable for the large scale armies needed by the Fisher King, Argan.
Now, with a war in the north against the Antorians, who had come from across the Emerald Ocean, and advances made by the Dragwyns in the south, Radigund faced the prospect of a two-pronged invasion. Tallas wished he had never signed up when the man had come.
When Tallas had arrived to the fortress of Sir Cathell and given his uniform and weapons, he found to his dismay that it was the wrong size and very uncomfortable. When he had complained to the Supply Master, he had been reprimanded and told that it was regulation that each soldier wears the armour and uniform given. Because each piece of equipment was numbered, Tallas couldn't swap with someone and now stood on the causeway that ran along the outer wall, in a shirt too large for him, a helmet to small and a breastplate that dug sharply into his chest. Oh how he wished that he had not signed up.
Tallas blinked quickly. Had one of the shapes moved? It was had to tell because the large red sun that sunk below the landscape had positioned itself right behind the hill. He looked again and suddenly realised that he could now only see two shapes, dotted against the crimson of the hill.
Scrambling down the stairs, Tallas yelled out: "Sir, sir, they're coming." A couple of grim faced men looked startled as Tallas ran past them, then rammed on their helmets and started to move towards the wall.
Tallas met up with Ceridwen as he entered the main hall of the Keep. The guard captain had a very worried look on his face; a frown creased his forehead as he looked up at Tallas. "They come. Damn them; tell the sergeant to get every archer he can muster to gather in the main courtyard. And tell them to double the guard. I'll have to go back in and tell Cathell." As he turned to go back into the keep, a voice cut him off.
"Cathell has already heard, captain. I suggest you go and see to the defence." The person who spoke was a tall, imposing man. His tone was imperious and commanding, deep and resonating. He was dressed in finely embroidered hose and a tunic. A golden brooch held up a bright blue cloak and engraved on its face was the seal of Sir Cathell.
"You, boy." A finger beckoned Tallas, " come with me." Ceridwen looked surprised as the knight lead Tallas off down the long corridor that led into the Keep.
Tallas had never been inside the Keep before. Looking at the fine tapestries that lined the walls, the large vases and rich carpets. Grand statues lined one section of the hall that the two passed down, as Sir Cathell led Tallas further into the Keep.
"What is your name boy?" the knight asked as they walked up to a pair of double doors, which was opened by two guards.
Tallas tried to speak his name, but the words stuck, causing him to stutter and gag. Sir Cathell smiled, his bearded face breaking out of the stern mask that he had worn for the journey to the room.
The room itself was surprisingly bare after seeing the rich corridors that led to it. There was only a large oak table and chairs that surrounded it. On the table, a map of Sir Cathell's lands was spread.
"Do you know what this is, boy?" the knight pointed at the map with a jabbing finger.
"Yes, my lord. A map of Sevain."
"Indeed, and down here is the land of the Dragwyns. Sit down boy." Sir Cathell pulled out a chair, which Tallas sat in. It was hard and uncomfortable. "I heard you are good at climbing, boy. Is that true?"
"Yes, my lord." It was true, back in Cavershal, Tallas had been known as the lizard because he had been good at running away and climbing walls. He had been unpopular, for a reason he could never understand and the other boys of the town had often ganged up on him and tried to beat him.
"Good. I have a task for you, boy. It has to do the Dragwyn Knights that I am told, you saw a while ago. It is a task of utmost importance, do you understand?" Tallas gazed into the eyes of the knight, then quickly looked away. He was acutely aware of how his beating heart and how loud his breathing sounded.
"Yes, my lord. What is it?"
"To the south there it a village called Dunnbarrow," Sir Cathell gestured vaguely at the map, where Tallas could indeed see a mark which had the symbol for Dunnbarrow. He remembered that only last spring; Sir Cathell had executed a reeve that came from the village.
Sir Cathell continued, "One week ago, the large force of Black Knights rode into the village and captured it, setting fire to many home and people. Since then, the same force has ridden closer north and captured the town of Sichelm. I have reports of a force exceeding two hundred-foot soldiers and twenty horsemen. In Sichelm, I have a man who has been able to get close to the leader of the force. A devil called Tache, who can release the very flames of... well, that is not important. You shouldn't get near him. What you need to do is to deliver this message to my man in Sichelm. Do you understand?" Tallas nodded mutely, clasping his hands together to stop them trembling.
"Good, because you must leave tonight. The Black Knights moved quicker than I imagined. The message must reach Petrus by this morning." the knight stood and walked to a large curtain. Reaching behind it, Tallas heard a bell ring and a moment later a thin man entered through an elaborate door set in the sidewall.
"Yes sir?" the man asked.
"Take this boy and explain what he needs to do in order to deliver the message to Petrus." Sir Cathell removed a small square of paper from his tunic and handed it to the thin man. Gesturing to the man, Sir Cathell walked towards the wide double doors, which opened for him.
"Come with me boy. What is your name?"
"Tallas, sir. What do I need to do? Sir Cathell said I must take a message to his man in Sichelm. I-" He was cut off by the man who hurried him along a narrow corridor that ended in a thick metal studded door.
"Listen, boy. We don't have much time. Now, can you read?" Tallas shook his head. "You only know the symbols? Fine. I need you to remember this message. If the Dragwyns capture you then you must destroy the message. If they come close, or you can't get into Sichelm then you must destroy the message. Understand boy? Good.
The man opened the door and led Tallas into a small room with a table and two chairs in it. On the table were a sack and a lamp. Tallas sat down in one of the chairs and listened as the man read out the message and repeated it until he got it exact. Opening the sack, the man revealed a set of dark green and brown clothes and a shot sword that was covered in soot and black grease.
"Put on the clothes, you must leave soon." Conscientiously, Tallas removed his uniform and put on the dark clothes. They were loose and baggy, but much more comfortable than his armour had been. He thrust the sword into his belt and looked at the man.
"Good, good. Now follow me." As they walked, the man handed Tallas the square of paper. "Do you know how to get to Sichelm, boy?"
"Yes sir, of course. My granny used to live there before she died and we'd visit her on-"
"Thankyou, that's all I wanted to know." They had reached a small door, which Tallas guessed must be one of the hidden doors that opened out from the Outer wall.
"To reach Petrus, you must say the password: 'Eachtra Mhelora'. What is it?"
"Good, now Petrus is in the Spotted Bull. You will recognise him by the scar in his cheek." Now go. Be there by tomorrow morning. Your lord depends on you."
Tallas, his heart racing like a hare, started to run out from the door. In the darkness of the early evening, he was nearly invisible. After five minutes, Tallas stopped running and looked back at the fort. Every light and torch was blazing; the wall was full of guards and Tallas for the first time, wanted to be back inside the walls. To get his bearings, Tallas looked at the sky, locating the familiar constellations, Pa Gur, stars of truth and Culhwch, the Great Portal to the Next World. Sichelm was straight ahead, about thirty miles. In the darkness and because of the hills between him and the town, Tallas reckoned that it would take all night at a steady run. With a deep breath of air, Tallas started off, adrenalin pumping through his veins.
At last, with the nighttime
sky beginning to fade, replaced by the warm glow of the morning, Tallas
looked down at the ruined city of Sichelm. The walls of the town still
stood, although the gates had been burnt away. There was a single guard
at the gate, but as Tallas looked closer, he could see several figures
moving along the wall. As he got up, Tallas winced as a sharp pain flashed
up from his ribs. At some point during the frantic run from Sir Cathell's
manor, he had tripped on a rock and landed against a tree, a broken branch
stabbing through the cloth and into his side. The wound had been shallow,
but the impact had caused one or two of Tallas' ribs to break, making it
painful, though not impossible to run.
Stumbling down the small incline that led on to Sichelm, as Tallas came closer to the wall, he crouched low in the long grass. He was breathing heavily, the breaths painful gasps as the pain in his chest grew. Now only some fifty yards from the wall, Tallas waited as a guard walked slowly past him, a short bow in his hands.
When the guard had passed, Tallas quickly ran up to the base of the tall, steep wall. It was slick and cold in the early morning dew, luckily however the stones were large enough to make good hand holds. With a grunt, Tallas started to climb the wall. The climb was easy, made hard by the broken ribs but soon, Tallas was up and on the walkway that ran along the top of the wall.
Just as he was about to start to climb down the other side, he heard a shout. Looking around like a surprised rabbit, Tallas saw a guard running towards him, bow raised. There was a 'zip' and something flashed though the air. Tallas felt a sudden intense pain as he looked down at his stomach and saw a black bolt had impaled him. He groaned, the pain spreading up towards his chest, dark blood pouring out from the stem of the arrow. Another 'zip' coincided with an arrow piercing Tallas' shoulder, the wickedly barbed head thrust through his back. With a cry, Tallas toppled off of the wall and into the town.
The world spun as Tallas lay on a bed of straw. The pain in his stomach was like nothing he had ever felt. He clasped at it, trying to stop the blood. Shouts came from the palisade above him and a moment later a torch was lit. With a lurch, Tallas got to his feet and started to run towards a building. It was a burned out husk, and as Tallas staggered past it, he saw in the distance, a sign. The picture was only just visible in the spinning, blurry vision that was clouded with pain. Blood gushed from between his fingers, down his legs, splashing on the uneven flagstones, as he ran, the head of the arrow dug against something that caused a brief, muffled scream to escape his lips. The sign was clearer now, a black and white cow. Running to it, Tallas hammered on the door. It was opened by an old woman with a shawl. Looking at the black arrows protruding from Tallas' body, she put her hand to her mouth and ushered him in. Tallas had just enough strength to stumble in and collapse on the straw covered floor.
He felt cold,
he tried to move, but couldn't feel his legs. Looking down at his hand,
he saw that black blood was oozing out from the arrow, covering his fingers
and staining a huge patch of his tunic. The world spun into focus as he
looked up into the face of a man with a mass of scars on his cheek. The
man was young, not more than twenty-five, however only his face could clearly
be seen. There was a coppery taste in his mouth as he tried to speak. A
warm liquid made him cough and splutter, a dull pain in his chest making
"Yes. What is the pass word?"
"Very good. Now, tell me the message and then sleep." The man's voice was low; almost a whisper, yet every word was clear. As he looked into the man's eyes, a deep fear edged into his mind, he started to cry. A cool hand was pressed to his forehead, which made him feel better.
"Am Am I going to die?"
"No, but you must tell me the message before I can get a doctor." Another gaze into the eyes and, with tears streaming down his face, Tallas repeated the message.
"Are you sure that was it?" The man asked, a frown creasing his brow.
"Yes... I don't want to die... Don't let me die..." A racking sob burst from him as he started to cry again.
"No little one, you will not die. Sleep." Fingers closed Tallas' eyes, and the coldness spread up his body.
The man looked
down at the boy. On the bed, the small shallow breaths slowed, then stopped.
A moment later the blood stopped pulsing and the room was quiet. The man
stood, his black cloak scraping the ground as he walked out of the door.
Another man stood outside, dressed in the same clothes as the first. A
great, black helm was under his arm and he saluted as the first man stepped
through the doorway.
"Sir Tâche, the traitor Petrus has been executed as you ordered."
"Sir, what about the boy?"
"Give the body to the animals. He is one of Cathell's men. I have what I needed to know. Radigund will fall by the end of next year." The second man gestured to two soldiers, who ran into the room and dragged out the bloody body of the boy.
"And the old woman?"
"She too is a traitor, dispatch her." The Dragwyn Knight strode down the street to the wall and looked over the battlements to where, some ten leagues away, Sir Cathell waited anxiously for the messenger to return.
"Tomorrow, I will have you Cathell." The Black Knight smiled grimly, then strode away.
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