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The Epic Tales of Sir Tāche le Morceau

 
 

And the Gates did Burn

By Alex White.

   They arrived early in the afternoon, four of them, covered head to toe in black armour. Sitting astride great warhorses that seemed to come from the very stuff of nightmares, the Black Knights carried long, sharp lances. The banners that hung and blew limply in the soft wind heralded the arrival of the Dragwyn war host. Within an hour of the Black Knight's appearance, a line of dark shapes started to become clear through the hazy fog that covered the hills around the fort of Sir Cathell, even though it should have burned away in the heat of the sun.
   Sir Cathell stood atop the tower of his keep, looking down at the assembled Dragwynian army. It was more of a preliminary force, sent by the accursed Dragwyn High Commander, Sir Cathell thought. Below him, the fog started to billow over the hills, pouring like grey lava onto the land beneath him. A cry rang up from the guards patrolling the battlements, the captain trying to keep order.
   What vexed Sir Cathell was that the Dragwyns had not moved since arriving earlier that day. Standing motionless, just out of bow range, the combined force could not have numbered more than one hundred foot soldiers. Yet there was an unearthly quality about them, a fearful aura that crept into the hearts of the men on the other side of the wall. It was this feeling that had stopped Sir Cathell from ordering his own men out onto the field to do battle with the Dragwyns, a feeling deep in his bones.
   Only the banners and pennant moved, as the fog billowed through the legs of the Dragwyns, breaking against the manor walls like an angry sea. Even the Black Knight's horses did not move; the inhuman silence that issued from them was almost deafening. Sir Cathell cursed and headed towards the stairs that led back down into the keep.
   The journey down the long spiral staircase was filled by deep thought as the lord of Sevain tried to formulate a strategy. His own men numbered almost five hundred, logistically there was almost no way that the Dragwyns could win, let alone keep up a siege, or storm the manor. Yet something told Sir Cathell that if he sent his men out onto the walls when the Black Knights attacked, they would die. Any attempt to engage them on the plain before the manor would also meet with disaster, Sir Cathell was sure of it, but he did not know why.
   Elevri, his adviser, met him at the bottom of the stairwell. A thin man, almost emaciated, Elevri was a brilliant strategist and organiser. Indeed, without his help, Sir Cathell doubted that he would be able to keep the day to day running of Sevain under control. Not that mattered now, Sir Cathell thought to himself as Elevri started to speak.
   "Sir, the boy has not returned, and I have grave news about the war in the North."
   "Tell me everything, spare no detail. How does our King hold up?"
   "The War Lord has been slain my lord. Assassinated by Neshan agents, stabbed while he slept. I am afraid that another city has fallen, Herthyn. Utterly destroyed they say." The adviser was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps running down the hall towards them.
   "My lord, my lord. The Black Knights, their leader has ridden to the gates." Sir Cathell looked up sharply, then grabbed Elevri and ran down the corridor out to the wall.
   "Why was he not shot? What good are archers if they don't fire arrows at the enemy?" They reached the great oaken doors that led out into the courtyard. Across it, the Outer Wall stood, fog oozing through the small cracks, making the surface of the yard impossible to see. As Sir Cathell and Elevri ran through the yard, the fog, up to their knees, seemed to drain the colour from them. A sensation of frigid cold crept up Sir Cathell's legs, despite his thick woollen breeches. As he ran up the narrow stairs, Sir Cathell was suddenly aware of a thought entering his mind: "Give in, you have no hope." It wasn't like a voice in his mind, merle a thought. A shiver went down his spine.
   Looking down over the battlements, Sir Cathell could see the Dragwyn, sitting, almost floating in the fog that on the other side of the wall was much higher. Elevri, standing next to Sir Cathell whispered to his lord: "Sir, it is the leader of the Dragwyns. If he is cut down, then the rest will collapse. Quick, order the archers to shoot him." the lord of Sevain thought quickly. It would be dishonourable to cut down an enemy while he stood alone, yet this could possibly be his only salvation. Sir Cathell's arm flashed up, signalling for the archers to fire. As his arm moved up, Sir Cathell looked into the dark slits of the great helm that the Dragwyn Knight wore. His arm froze, as the piercing blackness of the eye slits seemed to peer into his very soul. Slowly he lowered his arm.
   An archer, who had seen his lords arm flash up, and whose legs were trembling in the wake of the supernatural fear that emanated from the Dragwyns pulled back on his bow string and loosed an arrow, aimed at the heart of the Black Knight.
   The bolt sped like quicksilver, but as it reached half way, the flight feathers burst into brilliant blue flame; the rest of the arrow was quickly consumed, the ashes falling softly to the earth.
   "I am Tâche le Morceau. Knight of Dragwyn. If you swear fealty to me and my lord, I shall only slay every fifth person, if not, all shall die. You have one hour to decide, Sir Cathell. The life of every fifth person, or all of them." The harsh words issued like the voice of the dead from beneath the dull black helm, heard by every man on the wall.
   Sir Cathell turned away as the Black Knight rode back to his men. Face as white as a sheet, the lord of Sevain walked slowly down the stairs that hugged the wall like a vine.
   The guard captain marched up to Sir Cathell and saluted, "Sir, what are you going to do?"
   "Wait. Double, no! Triple the guard, make sure that no one approaches the wall again." The captain saluted again and stepped away. Mean while, Elevri walked close beside his lord, a grimace creasing his features. They walked in silence, through the plush hallways and carpeted corridors until they came to a set of large double doors. Two guards pulled open the doors as they walked into the chamber beyond.
   "Well Elevri, if ever I needed your advise, it is now. Did you see the arrow burn out of the air?"
   "I did my lord, though I can scarcely believe my own eyes," the thin man sat down at the table, upon which was a large map of the manor an its surrounding lands, "we cannot accept their demands-" He was cut off abruptly by a shout.
   "Damn it, I know I can. God curse them, every fifth man. One hundred dead. That is intolerable. It's inhuman. What am I going to do?" the lord cradled his head in his hands, sighing deeply. Sir Cathell's mind was blocked. No thoughts came to as what he could do to defeat an enemy who could set fire to the very arrows that were fired at him.
   "Sir, it seems to me as though they will attack and attempt to storm the walls, although how they plan to do that is beyond me. Unless they can fly." There was a deathly silence, "I mean, my lord, "Elevri said hurriedly, "they have no siege weapons or equipment. They could not possibly starve us out. They won't be able to gain access, or even fight us hand to hand."
   "We can do nothing until they act, Elevri. What do you know of this devil Tâche?" Elevri shook his head.
   "Nothing my lord."

   The grey sky seemed to mirror the dark fog that covered the land in every direction, for as far as the eye could see, the world was a static ocean of mist. With the hour nearly up, Sir Cathell stood over looking the wall. Standing as he was on the palisade, he could see clearly the Dragwyns, who according to the guard, had not moved since he had left.
   "Damn that boy! If only he had delivered the message." Clad in bright metallic armour, Sir Cathell's fist slammed into the parapet, "I should never had let such a young, incompetent child go on a mans duty." The previous day, Sir Cathell had sent a messenger out of the keep and into one of the captured towns. The message was of vital importance and told of Sir Cathell's forces and position of all of his remaining soldiers. It was to have gone to Petrus, who would have been able to make sure that the letter made it safely to the Fisher King Argan. The boy had not returned, and Sir Cathell privately believed that he had deserted, condemning the rest of the men in the manor to die at the hands of the Dragwyns.
   "If you have any suggestions Elevri, say them now, for the knight is riding towards us." Indeed, the leader of the Dragwyn army was approaching and with him, the waves of irrational fear, stronger than ever washed over the fort. To Sir Cathell's left, a soldier fell to his knees with a sob, a dark stain spreading through his breeches. The lord of Sevain swallowed, and was glad, not for the first time, that his wife and only daughter were away at his brother's manor near Cath Palu. He tried to stop the trembling of his knees, the chattering of his jaw, the shaking of his hands, but the fear, now approaching terror was to great.
   "Lord of Sevain, have you come to a decision?" as the Dragwyn Knight spoke, yet another guard, and another broke down, a few fleeing their posts and running down the narrow stairs into the thick fog. Next to him, Elevri was breathing quickly, with little breaths, his eyes bulging in their sockets. Every part of Sir Cathell was screaming for him to say yes, he gave in. But his honour spoke before he gave into his fear, "I will not bow to you, nor any of your demon-spawned kind. I bend my knees only to my true lord, King Argan. I spit in your face, you Dragwyn demon."
   The Black Knight removed his helm, slowly revealing the scarred face underneath. The grim face looked up at the lord of Sevain; it's hooded eyes as hard as diamond. As the eyes swept the battlements, the aura of fear increased, pulsing like a heart beat, extending and reaching into the minds of all those in the manor.
   "You have condemned every living soul behind your walls, to death." the last word echoed around the valley, or so it seemed, for he had not raised his tone above that of a murmur.
   As more soldiers broke and ran from the walls, Sir Cathell fumbled with his sword, feebly attempting to release it from its sheath. Suddenly, a flash fire leapt from every bow on the battlement, causing a cry of alarm from the twenty or so archers who still stood their ground. The flame was brilliantly bright and intensely hot, those who didn't drop the weapon ensuring that the wretched man caught alight himself.
   In seconds, the bows were blazing, so too were the bolts in their quivers. Several archers ran screaming from the walkway, their arms burning like bonfires, the flames spreading like lightning. One man rushed towards one of the burning men with a bucket, but even that did not stop the flames.
   With the sudden flurry of activity, the spell of fear was broken, soldiers yelled and called out, swords were drawn and helmets put on. Sir Cathell, suddenly free of the fear which had held him almost paralysed, started to issue orders, "Water, get water up here!"
   What little sound issued from the fog filled courtyard was muffled and faint; however, several figures ran up the narrow stairs carrying buckets of water.
   Sir Cathell was aware of a feeling of warmth, looking down, he saw that his sword was starting to glow. A faint odour of burnt leather and metal came from his gauntlet, and Sir Cathell dropped his blade with a cry. Several other clangs meant that other swords were being similarly affected.
   A movement from the Dragwyns was visible as Sir Cathell tried to take off his metal glove. Their ranks parted to allow the four Black Knights to canter towards the massive, iron studded gates. The faint sun illuminated the quartet as they stopped some thirty paces way from the wall. The lead Dragwyn Knights, the scar-faced one lifted a black clad arm and pointed at the great Iron Wood gates.
   Sir Cathell heard the words leave the un-helmed knights lips, saw the eyes narrow, felt the sudden blow of super heated air, "Burn."
   The world spun, as the lord of Sevain tried to regain his balance. Beside him, Elevri tried to pull Sir Cathell from falling to the cold, hard stone paving below them.
   "The gates are burning, the gates are burning!" A shrill cry rose above the rest of the frenzied noise, followed by the cries of several more soldiers who, unseen in the fog, which now reached well above their heads, tried vainly to put it out.
   Steady once more, Sir Cathell and Elevri looked down at the four knights, the bare head of Tâche more frightening than the dark helms of the other three. Suddenly, the scarred face looked directly at Sir Cathell. Strange, dark thoughts entered Sir Cathell's mind, thoughts of turning against his men, of strangling Elevri, who stood next to him, or many unholy acts, flashing through. Sir Cathell clutched his head, as the Black Knight stared with those diamond eyes.
   "My Lord," Elevri said, concerned, "what is wrong? Are you hurt?"
   "Silence worm!" Sir Cathell's arm swept around in a long, angry stroke, knocking the adviser backwards. Elevri toppled over the edge of the causeway, disappearing into the fog filled courtyard. Sir Cathell collapsed to his knees, his hands clawing at his head, as if to rip away the evil thoughts that were invading his consciousness.
   On the plain, the Dragwynian soldiers started to move towards to burning gate, great black clouds of smoke curling up to the sky like a weed. In unison, the barely visible infantry drew their swords, making a sound like the tearing of silk
   As the gate, burned almost to charcoal, started to go out, the Black Knights urged their Warhorses into a gallop, crashing through the still burning wood. The soldiers behind them followed, breaking a wide hole through which they poured, like a swarm of angry wasps.

   The fog had dissipated. Now only the heavy clouds overhead, masked the sinking sun. Tâche walked through the courtyard, stepping daintily over the corpses of the dead soldiers. Most of them were men of Sir Cathell; the few survivors were being herded into the feasting hall.
   Walking up the stairs that led to the battlements, the Knight was careful not to slip on the blood covered steps. Reaching the top, Tâche glanced at the shivering form of Sir Cathell, clutching at his head, gibbering in near madness. Standing over the lord of Sevain, Tâche extended a gloved hand. Sir Cathell looked up with red rimmed eyes, tear streaks running like rivers down his face. A hopeless, desperate look, a look that was approaching absolute horror was etched across the face of the once proud knight. His lower lip trembling like a leaf, small sobs escaping his mouth, Sir Cathell reached out a shaking arm and took Tâche's offered hand.
   Racking sobs issued from Sir Cathell as they descended the stairs, the lord unable to think because of the memories of what mental pictures had entered his head. Led into the keep with two of the Black Knights following behind, Tâche opened the door to the feasting hall. In there, the survivors of the brief but bloody battle stood. Dragwyn soldiers stood in front of them, naked sword flashing in the torchlight.

   "Before you die, Sir Cathell, you will watch as the last one of your men dies in front of you. Before you die, you will beg me to end your life."
   The Black Knight nodded and the first Dragwynian soldier raised his sword over the head of a trembling man and brought it down.
 
 

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