Author's Comments: I start
many stories, but this is one of the few that I actually completed.
For a creative writing class, it was received well only by one
person in the class, who penciled on his review to me "And I'm the
only one in the class who got it." The professor and I
had very different views on what made great literature...it was in
his class that I developed my current distaste for Hemingway.
December 13, 1994
Olric Holroyd's rough,
cragged hands rested on the stone battlement of the castle that was
his charge. Far below him, in the penumbra created by the last
trickling rays of sunlight, five rawboned men pushed against a wagon
that had become mired in the mud of the river below. The rear of the
wooden vehicle, which was heavily laden with wool headed to Bolton
Abbey to the south, had begun to twist under the urging of the
water, complicating the task further. One man decided to wish fire
out of a twisted pine stump they'd found in the forest's nearby,
while the other four continued haggling over the best way to move
the cart. The heavy ox that was latched to the wagon leaned down and
began to munch on innocent nearby weeds.
Olric turned to face the
pink and red horizon that dominated the view of the other side of
the castle; the jaggedness of the line between the land and sky was
only more pronounced by the sluggardly dripping spot of blood in the
"'t'l be a wretch'd
night, sar," the steward said through his stringy, white beard. His
breath floated into the wind like a sulfurous smoke, and washed
across Olric's face. Olric ignored the smell of old beef and
barleyed ale, and nodded in agreement. The steward was a rapidly
aging man, not yet of fifty years. His hair, once black as soot,
looked like frost had fallen onto it in the midnight air and decided
to defiantly remain when the sun shown. His face had begun to pucker
in on itself, especially around his thin, brown eyes. Obscuring his
rapidly balding head was a leather cap that he kept neatly tied
under the whiskers of his chin. He wore a thick, woolen cloak over
his linen clothing, both of which had grayed with age from their
original browns and whites. His only weapon was a brass dagger he
kept at his left hip, but that was only used to pierce the food
cooked by the household servants under his supervision.
Several soldiers stepped
onto the roof of the aged tower, nodding to those men already
standing nearby. Those who had been watching the surrounding
countryside gave up their positions to their relief, and walked
through the creaking doors of the nearest tower. As the fresh men
rested into their positions, they pulled against the interwoven iron
rings that guarded them against whatever weapon would intrude,
forcing the pieces into more comfortable positions. They each pushed
their bows between their legs and strung them, and some even pulled
a single blue feathered arrow from it's quill and rested it on the
battlement before him. "All's well," each shouted, in turn. After
counting off eight such reports, Olric stepped to the nearest tower
himself and began to tread down the worn, stone stairs. The steward
remained behind to wonder if the sun had fallen behind the rounded
tops of the Pennines, or the dark thunderclouds that he knew lay
Olric stepped into the
Great Hall after descending two floors; the din of the soldiers who
had just come off duty was a melody to his ear. It was times like
this that he wondered if having his right ear would have given him
twice the pleasure. He could not remember when, in his tender youth,
his father had wrenched his ear from it's place; but he was certain
that it had been a just punishment for whatever crime he had
committed. His finger absently slipped under his left chest plate and
scratched at the chains underneath. Unfortunately, chain mail proved
against any sort of scratch, be it an assassin's dagger or its
The Great Hall was the
eating place, theatre, and sometimes judgment hall of the Olric's
lord, the Baron of Ilkley. Barden Tower was built to be a wilderness
fort to protect the calm dales of Yorkshire from any group of
plaid-wearing barbarians who sought to steal the Shire's wine,
women, and wealth that God had forsaken them. However, the Tower was
now no more than a hunting lodge for His Lordship, whose father had
decided to give up the life of living in a stone fortification to
living a wooden manor in town, and his son saw no reason to alter
his father's plan. The Baron himself was not the warrior that his
ancestors had been. He had joined many other nobles in dedicating
his time to the complex affairs of estate, not the simple affairs of
war. Recently, however, he was called by the Duke to defend the
Shire from yet another group of outlaws that were threatening the
roads around Richmond. A message had arrived a day less than a
fortnight ago reporting the Baron's successful return from those
The tower, however, still
had its Great Hall to attest to his ancestors' greatness. The walls
were well covered by thick, turquoise and sapphire tapestries that
spanned the distance from the floor to the ceiling. Most of them
contained scenes of hunting; one held an armored soldier holding a
bleeding hart, another held the visage of a man in brown hunting
leathers with a hawk and five dead hares, yet another held a man in
green hunting clothes holding a wild pig. The largest of the
tapestries, however, held an image of a fully armored soldier, with
the insignia of Ilkley upon his shield, fighting a white dragon.
Between each tapestry was a sconce and its torch, above which was
the head of some animal the Baron or his father or his father had
slain, the most impressive of which was a white elk that the Baron's
grandfather had killed while hunting in Ulster, across the seas.
It's antlers, which were covered in small hairs akin to those a
young man might have for his first beard, were easily as wide as the
height of two strong men. Its red glare forced the house servants a
second glance when they entered the room, and most of them whispered
some ancient protective poem to themselves as they left. The floor
of the Great Hall was covered with straw upon layer of straw.
Beneath the most recent layer lay the remains of former meals,
decaying among the gray, rotting flesh of the older straw.
Sometimes, one of the six dogs that patrolled the room for scraps
would discover a treasure in the graveyard of meats and dig through
to the stone floor below in search of his wormy feast. Most of the
time, the wolfhounds would sit themselves next to the table and
whine, uncertain if the hand that would come toward them offered a
particularly greened piece of cow or a drunken slap across the maw.
Olric leaned against the
archway that led from the stairs to the Great Hall and watched his
Lord's men prepare themselves for their meal. Barden Tower's only
priest lifted his weight out of the wide, oaken chair in which he
sat, and bowed his head. His voluminous brown robes dropped from his
his hands as he arched them in prayer. The men grew quiet as the
priest's mumblings began, and Olric laughed to himself at their
ability to become solemn so quickly. A few shifted impatiently in
their chairs, while others slipped a hand onto the table and
procured for his friend tongue an early bit of beef. When the
priest's prayer was finally finished, the men pulled their daggers
and fought with laughter over the pea-green mottled cow's flesh
before them. The servant women moved quickly to keep the coarse,
dark ale flowing into the mouths of the soldiery. Some of the kinder
women were even gifted with a hand to whatever part of their body
pleased the soldier that they were serving. Olric was so lost in
considering the scene before him that he took a great, long moment
to notice the small tug on his lengthy crimson cloak.
He turned, knowing who
had quietly snuck away from the steward's ever glassing eye and
padded her way to him. She smiled up at him, and his contemplative
look was replaced by a small smile under his thick, red beard that
she said reminded her of her father's.
"Milord," she said,
making a small curtsey.
"If the steward discovers
you've slipped his eye again, you'll be punished," he said.
"I'll return," she said,
seeming to have suddenly lost all her courage. She turned and began
to move down the hall. Olric turned and followed, grabbing her by
her thin arm. She whipped around a little faster than he'd meant and
he wrapped his arms around her. Under his armor and war-sewn arms,
she felt like a newly born goat. He pressed his lips against hers
and, for a moment, they kissed. She smelled of oil and fire, and her
mouth was grimed by the soot of the kitchen. He pulled himself back
from her, realizing that her lips were trembling. Her eyes grew wide
and her head shrank back on her thin neck.
"What's wrong?" he
whispered to her. His brows furrowed in anger; "I'll slay any man
who has dishonored you," he said darkly.
"No, Warden," she said to
him, her body beginning to tremble as well. "No man dare touch me,
for fear of your dread wrath." The tan linens she wore rippled like
the ocean that buffered England and the Hibernian Isle. Her thin
hands began to clutch each other like a brace of peregrines
combating in a ditch. What nails that survived the attack of her
yellowed teeth were split and crusted with blood from cleaning the
rough floors of the kitchen every night.
"Then why do you tremble
so?" he asked, attempting to force curved tenderness into the square
hole that was his voice. He put a hand out for her, but she didn't
"Milord, I tremble out of
fear," she responded, backing away.
He remained where he
stood, his expression growing darker. "What do you fear, Cerwin?" He
could feel himself becoming impatient with her. His face grew warm
and he could feel the muscles near his ears pull his jaw against his
"That which is to come,"
she shouted, and Olric jumped from the sudden change, his armor
rattling against him. Cerwin turned and ran down the hallway, her
sobs remaining even after her footfalls had gone.
Olric harumphed to
himself and scratched again under his chest plate. He returned to his
station in the archway to see if anyone had noticed the servant
girl's shout. All of the soldiers seemed to still be besmeared in
the task at hand. One of the men, however, looked up from his meal
long enough to notice the Warden standing in the archway. He lifted
up his dagger, which was festooned with a muddy, half-eaten turnip,
and motioned for Olric to step forward. He said something through
his food infested beard, but it could not be heard through the
shouts of his companions. Olric smiled and began to approach the
table. A servant rushed forward and placed a chair at the table for
the Warden. As he left the archway, he could hear a far-off roar of
By the time the Warden
had finished his meal, the first of the guards had come down off his
station. He was the thinnest of the guards, and wore no beard,
though his wet, cornsilk hair hung low. His helmet was under his
right arm, and his bow was unstrung. He didn't look as if he had
expected the Warden to be in the Great Hall, and almost appeared
ready to turn and run back into the rain far above.
"Jorik," the Warden
roared, "why have you left your post?" His heavy chair fell
backwards as he rose, and clattered against the floor. A young boy
jumped forward to put it back in its place, but an older servant
nearby held his arm and shook his head in warning. The boy returned
to his place.
"Milord," the youth said.
"A storm has come," he claimed. He seemed to realize the futility of
a claim that seemed full of reason only a moment ago. He quickly
added, "It is the breath of Scratch himself, milord." The young
soldier seemed about to stumble over his words, and leaned foward at
every phrase as if he were throwing the words from a catapult. The
priest scowled at the remark, and marked himself with an invisible
"Should he make a cloven
step onto the north tower, you shall remain at your post! Return to
your duty now. Think not of wind and rain, but of the Baron, the
Duke, the King and, most preciously of all, our God." The Warden
turned, and stalked out of the huge chamber. After a moment of
dilemmic terror, the young soldier turned and charged back up the
steps to his watery post.
Olric stalked the
corridors of the Tower, determined to find Corwin and confront her.
He had consumed a bit more of the priests' ale than he had wanted
to, and he could feel his anger at her swelling inside him. It
wasn't until he had stepped past the Great Hall again that he heard
the voices within it, quickly speaking to one another, as if in
confusion. The meal was over, and its eaters would have already
found a comforting, though induced, sleep in the barracks.
The Warden entered the
room and five of the soldiers were standing around the end of one of
the long, elmwood tables. He was about to admonish them for
dereliction of their duty to God again when the sweet stench of
burnt flesh rammed itself into his lungs. He came closer to the
table, and the men grew silent.
Laying on the table,
moaning to himself, lay Jorik. Unlike the other men, he appeared to
have escaped the drenching rain of God, only to wet himself with his
own blood. His face was blackened and swollen, and deep streams of
blood fell from his eye sockets like the tears he would have, if he
still had eyes to cry with. Gray smoke gently lifted itself from his
mouth, which was open as if to scream. Only a low, guttural moan
escaped what was left of his lips, however. As Olric stepped closer,
he could see more of the soldier's blood seeping between the links
of his chain mail, which had not only been fused to itself, but to
his flesh as well.
"What did this?" Olric
said, almost beginning to believe the stories the steward had told
him when Olric had first come to the castle. Olric admonished him
for his superstitious ignorance, and told him to speak no more of
"God," the priest said,
as he stepped out of the archway. He walked to the soldier and
touched his fat finger to the man's melted face. "God has sent his
judgment upon this one. A spear from His celestial throne crashed
through the heavens and struck him down where he stood." The body of
the man grew still as the last of his life expelled itself in one
long, rattling breath. The priest bowed his head and spoke in the
Church's tongue, which Olric had never understood, while creating an
imaginary cross over the body. "Take him to the chapel," the priest
said to the men. "I shall pray for his absolution, and attempt to
abbreviate his stay in Purgatory."
The soldiers obeyed,
carrying the broken body up one flight of stairs and into the
priest's home and chapel. They quietly walked back to the Great
Hall, none of them looking at the Warden and they proceeded up the
stairs. The Warden turned and looked at the table, which was covered
in dark, purplish blood and black crusts of flesh that had fallen
off while moving the soldier. Olric reached out a hand and touched
the sticky stuff. He lifted his hand to his nose and inhaled and
shook his head as . It had been long since he had smelled the scent
of blood. He found himself filled with the memories of fighting in
the Duke's army nearly a decade ago against the bare-chested
barbarians of the North, as well as those barbarians who wore only a
striped dress for armor. He remembered the first man he killed, his
meticulously braided white-blonde hair could not save the neck below
it from the deep cut of his broadsword. The thick warrior fell to
his knees and looked to the heavens, as if expecting a celestial
woman to reach down and drag him to his heathen god. It was then
that Olric had discovered that there was no real power in the world
but that possessed by men. Without men, even God himself wouldn't
exist, he had decided. He had, of course, never told anyone of this
feeling, for it would certainly bring him no good in the eyes of
those more holy.
Another soldier, one of
the oldest, came storming down the stairs behind the Warden.
"Warden," he said to Olric, trying to remain straight while his
chest forced breath between his teeth. "There is someone at the
"'Someone'? Who is it,
Lyam?" he said, his heavy brow furrowing.
"He wouldn't give us his
name, sir. But he claimed to have us all flayed if we did not open
Olric nodded and stepped
toward the archway. "Return to your post, Lyam, I will handle this."
The Warden stepped up to a small door next to the large, oaken
entrance to the Tower and knocked loudly. "Porter? Awake, porter,"
Olric shouted through the wood, "there is a traveller at your door."
Olric heard some metal fall on the stone floor upon which the porter
slept, as well as the rustling of clothing. When the door opened,
the tall young man crouched down and stepped through the doorway.
"I'm sorry, Olric, I didn't hear," he said, pleadingly. Olric
reached up and slapped the man on his right ear. "Clumsy fool," he
said. "I should return you to the village that I found you in. Would
you like to return there, under the heavy rocks I pulled from your
body? Have you enough in that broken skull to understand what your
sole duty is?"
"I'm sorry, Olric," he
said, his eyes glassing over with water.
"Enough, you are too
simple to understand," Olric said, slapping the giant's ear again.
"Open the door."
Olric rested a hand on
his sword and watched as the giant pushed back the locks on the
door. As the door opened, the Warden could see an iron wall of rain
bashing itself into the ground. A man, similarly assaulted by the
weather, stepped into the torchlight. The Porter raised a hand to
his mouth and gasped as the Baron stepped in.
The Baron was a strong
man, but he stepped into the room as if he was pulling his horse
behind him. Blood seeped from beneath the plates that once protected
his leg, and his face was bulging with bruises. His golden and blue
robes were ripped and tattered, so much so that the armor that was
usually obscured by them jutted through like broken bones. He had no
weapon on his body, and one bloody spur clicked against the stone
floor when he stepped. The most disturbing detail of his appearance
was his face, which seemed fixed in a state of terror. His eyes were
wide and dark from the blood that had invaded them, his mouth hung
open, slightly moving as if it were trying to speak without the
permission of his mind, and his nostrils puffed out streams of smoke
in the cold night air.
The Warden immediately
fell to his right knee and bowed his head deeply. "Milord," he
began, "out of ignorance, I did not know you were--"
His voice was cut off as
the Baron fell onto Olric, his body limp from exhaustion. Olric
spread his arms wide to prevent the Baron from falling further, and
lifted him gently to a standing position. To his recollection, it
was the first time in his twenty years of service to the Baron that
they had touched. "To arms," the Baron whispered hoarsely. "We shall
Corwin lifted the gilded
goblet to the Baron's lip, which was swollen around four pools of
dark blood that resembled the shape of his teeth. When Olric had
bellowed for a servant to bring the Baron a goblet of beer, he had
not been thinking of anything but his battered lord. However, upon
Corwin's arrival with the beer in hand, he had difficulty
concentrating on anything but her. She was still frightened, and she
periodically met Olric's gaze with a doe-like glance. Whenever their
eyes met, she would quickly avert her eyes, and her skirt would
begin its rhythmic trembling.
"'Twas a score of
highwaymen who lay in wait for my band of hunters," the Baron said
after he had taken a sloppy gulp of his beer. "We fought them
valiantly, as Richard's knights against the accursed Moors, but
their number was greater than our skill. And their eyes...beloved
Mary preserve my soul, those eyes..." His head fell to one side as
his eyes grew wider. He continued to stare at one of the tapestries
as he continued his story. "One by one, my soldiers fell around me,
gripping themselves in their death-wounds. It was only the fleet
hooves of Proteus that carried me to the Strid, below. There, she
fell against a wagon that lay mired in the ford; I felt her leg snap
against the force of her fall. When I pulled myself from the river,
I saw around me the corpses of five men, their blood mixing in the
water around them, twining itself around the blood of the dying
beast that had been attached to their wagon. But it had not been a
man's sword who had pierced those good subjects' hearts, but four,
long, black, ichory claws, which had left several marks on each
man's body." The priest stepped into the Great Hall from the small
door behind the Baron's throne. Sweat had slimed his bald crown and
his breathing was sickeningly heavy. With every puff of breath that
rushed from his lips, a drop of sweaty saliva was pushed before him.
"It has come, Father, as you claimed it would, as the Book claimed
it would. The End. The End is here!" the Baron screamed to himself
in agony and terror as his bejeweled, muddy hands stretched his hair
to its limit. His feet stomped like a child frustrated for not being
able to command his own destiny, and his violent contortions moved
the great chair noisily from the table. The priest was, for once,
"Take His Lordship to his
chambers," Olric said to Corwin. "See that he receives what rest he
can find, and tend further to his wounds." Olric looked at the
Baron, who cowered in his chair like a beaten dog. "If his strained
health worsens, call on me, where ever I may be."
"Yes, milord," Corwin
said, giving a slight curtsey. She had jumped, almost as if struck,
when Olric had spoken to her. Fear was still etched into every word
she uttered. She gently placed her arm under the Baron's and ushered
him up. Whatever it was that had her so worried, it was serving to
steel up her soul for the Baron's outrageous behavior.
Olric turned and moved to
the stairs leading up to the roof. He gruffly grabbed a cloak that
was fastened to the wall just within the archway and pulled it
tightly around him. The brooch he used to fasten the cloak captured
a few strands of his beard, which were ripped from their moorings
before he realized what he had done. He cursed himself, and his
pain, and stepped up the wet stairs.
The battlements were
quiet, despite the twenty-two men who now stood watch and the hard
assault of rain from the heavens. Olric began to walk slowly around
the circumference of the castle, his eyes peering into the night for
any movement he could see between the nails of water. No sign of an
army could be seen on any horizon, but the rain would have certainly
drowned out any fire they could have built to protect themselves.
For minute upon minute, Olric remained on the tower, pacing back and
forth among the soldiers. Soon, the putrid smell of boiling oil
wafted up from the guardroom that lay above the entrance to the
tower. The small fortress was finally ready for any assault that
The rainwater had finally
seeped into Olric's padded clothing that supported his armor. He
would have to personally set the entire suit of metal into a vat of
oil to clear off the metal-eating water that it was immersed in.
Feeling his flesh tense up against the cold, he turned back to the
small door through which he had entered. A servant stumbled through
the door as he approached, and fell to one knee. He quickly stood
back up, with bright red trickles falling from his knee like tears
across a soiled cheek.
"Your lordship," he said,
his voice nervous and uncertain. "There has been an accident."
Olric followed the child
down the stone steps, using the wall to support himself when a step
proved too wet to support him. As they entered the Great Hall, four
other servants gently placed the body of one of their fellows on the
table, near the black-stained spot where Jorik had died. Olric
approached, and looked at the soft, pale expression of bliss on the
young servant woman's wet face. For a moment, she appeared to Olric
like one of the gentle statues of the Saint Mary that graced the
cathedrals in York. Then, suddenly, he realized that the face that
he was adoring was that of Corwin. Her neck and back were twisted,
and her eyes stared into the nothingness that was above them. The
priest entered the room heavily, led by a servant girl.
"What happened?" Olric
finally said, breaking the deadly silence.
"She was found by the
north tower, milord," one of the servants ventured. "When she did
not return with His Lordship's meal, as he had bade her, I went
looking for her. I saw her from the tower window, laying much as she
is now, but on the stones at the bottom of the tower."
"It is the sacred and
dread Hand of God we see at work this night," the priest began. "He
shall punish those who sin against His Law, as he hath with this
one." His thick fingers pointed solemnly at the body of the servant
"What was her crime?"
Olric said, attempting a steely monotone. His voice cracked against
the strain of his emotions.
"Lust," the priest said
simply. "She came to me and spoke of her bedding with a man of this
tower to whom she was not wed. Her courtship with this devil
resulted in his seed being sown in her Hellish fields. She certainly
dashed herself on the rocks below the tower, knowing that she was
forever now without Grace."
"Who is this man?" Olric
said, suddenly realizing a horrible need to keep his emotions in the
deepest, most painful hole in his chest.
"I know not," the priest
said. "If t'were not young Jorik, we shall find out tonight, when
the adulterer's lifeless body lies on this table, venged by the
wrath of God."
"Take her to the chapel,"
he commanded the servants, who quickly complied. The priest oversaw
the transport of the crumbling body.
As Olric went to the
Baron's chambers, his heart pushed against his chest, defiant of the
reality it had experienced. Olric had seen several men disemboweled
on the huge swords of the Scots and watched solemnly as steam rose
into the snowy morning air. He had seen several men beheaded, two of
which under his sentence. He had even watched as a man's skull
exploded under the heavy hammer of a Norseman. But no image of war
prepared him for the sorrow of Cerwin's death, nor the death of his
unborn child. Olric began to wonder if that was the dread secret she
was keeping as he approached the Baron's chamber door.
Pushing aside his
thoughts, he pushed the dark, heavy door open. The Baron was
standing in the room, before the fireplace, pulling at a leather
strap that would hold his breastplate in place. He nodded to Olric
as he entered, and fastened the strap into place.
"Your Lordship," Olric
began, his palms extending before him. "You need rest. You have seen
much this night, and the storm has ravaged your body. I beg you,
"Now is not the time for
rest, Warden," the Baron said, his voice steady and calm. "I have
not donned this armor in years, though it hung on this post," he
said, indicating the cross that had held his armor. "I have not
entered battle for years, prefering to remain in my safe tent. If
there is to be a battle this night, I shall be present to either die
or to succeed, and, regardless, to lead."
"Yes, milord," Olric
"I wish to inspect the
soldiery, Warden," he said simply, pulling his scabbard to his
waist. "I want a report on the standing of the servantry. If we
enter battle, we will need all available men armed and ready. Find
weapons for the women, if need be."
"Yes, milord," Olric
responded again. He turned sharply and moved to the door. The
Baron's hand rested on his shoulder as he reached for the door
handle. The touch startled Olric, who believed that his lord was
standing on the far side of the room. The Baron wore armor designed
and forged for him in London, and was not composed of the noisy,
loose mail that hung on Olric's body.
"Report to me in the
Great Hall," he whispered into his ear. Olric could feel some of his
fiery locks brush against his neck.
"Yes, milord," Olric
responded, and the Baron let him depart.
"Fire!" a servant's voice
echoed through the corridors of the keep. Olric turned in surprise.
He had wandered through all the servant's wing, insuring that they
were battle ready. He had already sent two of the servants, the
porter and the butler, to don armor and join the soldiers above.
Olric moved to the door of the kitchen through which he had been
walking and leaned out of it.
"Fire, you say?" he said
to the young man running through the corridor.
"Yes, milord," the
servant replied through his heavy breaths.
"Where?" Olric asked.
"The North Tower," he
responded. Olric nodded to him and turned to run down the corridor.
He could already smell the thick smoke that had begun to slide down
There were few things a
castle could not withstand. Given time, and good, strong defenses, a
castle could last indefinitely. However, calls of flame had
harbinged the utter destruction of many of the Crown's greatest
castles. It was the one true fear of a warrior, to be burned like
Satan in his Pandemonium. He thrust open the door to the interior of
the tower, and a wall of bright flame welcomed him. He pulled back,
his face stung by the smoke and the heat of the conflagration.
Beyond, he could see five armored bodies, their flesh blackened and
cracked from the heat. Olric turned and moved quickly to the stairs.
He ascended quickly to the second floor and stopped at the steward's
door. His leather gauntlet slammed heavily into the door.
"Steward," he called into
the door, "there is a fire!"
No response came from the
old man's quarters.
"Steward!" Olric called
again. He pushed the thin, wooden door open, and the putrid smell of
urine and feces assaulted his senses. In the center of the room lay
the old man, his stomach torn open in four long slashes. His
entrails had spilled their contents, and the soupy mixture had begun
to mix with the thin circle of white powder in which his body lay.
Olric stepped to the body and reached his finger to the floor,
touching a clean section of the circle. He smelt the grainy powder.
A ward against demons.
Olric climbed the stairs
to the roof, which was still surviving the assault of the weather.
Thick, black pools had begun to coalesce near the floor where the
roof met the towers. The North Tower smoldered with it's thick,
rumbling voice. No flames were visible from the roof, though the
light from the fire within could be seen reflecting in the black
smoke. Suddenly, Olric realized that there were no guards on the
roof. The arrows that they had placed before them upon entering
their watch would have been stowed at the first sign of rain, so no
sign of the soldiers remained. Olric stepped briskly around the
battlements toward the North Tower, and suddenly noticed a figure
standing near the East Tower; lightning reflected briefly against a
Forgetting the burning
tower, Olric drew his wide-bladed sword and approached the figure
quickly, almost running. His feet slipped beneath him, but he held
his balance on the hard stone. "Name yourself!" he shouted,
realizing that the figure was armored, and stood over the bodies of
two of his men.
"I am Ilkley," the figure
said, "Lord of Barden Tower and Baron to the King. Hold your blade."
Olric quickly dropped the
point of his blade and rose from his battle stance. From behind a
barrel, the heavy priest lifted himself awkwardly.
"These men have been
slain," the Baron said calmly, pointing with his sword at the men
laying at his feet. One had four long slashes across his face, which
had broken through the incredibly strong bone that normally
protected it. The other had four slashes across his arm that had
peeled back to reveal the bone underneath, and another set of
slashes across his abdomen, through his chain armor. "Our defenses
have been breached," he said, solemnly.
"It is the divine Will of
"Father," Olric said to
the drenched priest, his deep voice catching him in mid-sermon. "We
need your temporal abilities right now. Go down into the tower and
get the servants in order. The steward is dead, slain in the same
manner as these. Get them to line up with buckets to the North Tower
and put out that fire."
The priest nodded and
opened the door to the tower. Olric moved to follow.
The Baron put a hand on
the Warden's shoulder. "What are you doing, Olric?" the Baron said
simply. Olric was stunned for a moment, at the use of his proper
name by his superior.
"I am going to search for
our assassin," he said simply. "You must remain here, it is the most
defendable position in the castle. If you see anything, call for me,
and I will come."
The Baron nodded, fear
obviously coming back into his eyes.
Olric moved effortlessly
through the corridors of the castle. In his many years of service,
he had traversed all of the corridors many, many times. He knew
every last cobble that made up the floor and the location of every
torch sconce. As he searched the small keep, he noticed that the
torches had begun to run low. Unless the servants were quickly
successful in putting out the fire in the North Tower, he would have
to work his way through the corridors in the darkness. The thought
made him move quicker, he thought, but time seemed somehow twisted
to him. He wondered if the events around him were actually happening
so quickly, or if he were moving more slowly. He forced his thoughts
to return to his search.
As he moved towards the
servant's quarters, a rumbling sound filled the castle, and it's
walls shook. He moved quickly to the underground well that lay
beneath the servant's quarters, hoping for news of the battle with
flame. He stepped into the room, and found that all was silent. Five
buckets hung from their positions on the walls, untouched since the
feast earlier, and the well dutifully held it's water deep within
it's stony walls. However, no servant was nearby to drain it of it's
Olric could feel his
anger moving through his face again, contorting his muscles. He
moved up the stairs again, toward the chapel. The heavy doors did
not move when he pushed on them, and a chain rattled from the other
"Father, it is Olric, I
bid you, open these doors," he said to the room beyond. He could see
the flicker of candlelight play against the stones on the floor
under the door, and thought he saw someone moving within. Olric
slammed his plated shoulder against the door, and it groaned against
him. He pushed again, and one of the hinges snapped, permitting the
heavy door to fall inward.
Through the small,
triangular opening he had made between the doors, he could see the
chapel, all it's candles lit. He slowly moved under the door and
entered the room, but stopped upon looking at the alter. Laying
against the balcony-like pulpit from which the priest had admonished
the soldiery and promised eternal damnation, was the heavy, golden
cross that was normally hung above the pulpit. It lay right side up,
leaning precariously against the wooden pulpit. Hanging from the
crucifix was the form of the priest. His body had been sliced
several times, all in the same quadruplet of red ribbons, and his
fat had begun to slide through the openings. His face was fixed in
horror and shock, and his skull had been cracked open at it's bald
pate. Christ-like, his arms and feet were nailed to the cross with
thick, wooden quarrels, and he wore a crown made from his belt-rope
on his forehead.
Olric coughed, dryly, and
suddenly thought of his Lord again. He rushed from the chapel,
clumsily knocking the door to the ground in a profound thud. Water
had begun to coagulate at the base of the stone stairs that led to
the roof, and he clanged as he moved jerkily through the pools and
up the stairs. When he reached the top, the Baron moved from behind
the barrel and slashed at him. Olric parried the blow, though his
mind reeled in disbelief. Suddenly, the warrior's visage that the
Baron had inflicted on himself, disappeared, and was replaced by
"Olric, it's you," he
said, stumbling back and grasping his side, which was covered in new
"What has happened,
milord?" Olric asked, his breath barely willing to form itself into
"It was here," he said
simply, the horror glassing over his eyes. "I felt it's sting, I
smelt it's breath, I stared into those endless, crimson eyes. It was
here, Olric, but it did not kill me." He looked down to his hand,
which was holding a large, metal object with four curved blades
protruding from it. "It dropped this." The blades dripped horribly
with gore and blood, and Olric almost feared as if the blades
themselves would come alive and attack the both of them.
"We must depart, milord,"
Olric said, looking to the remnants of the North Tower. The rumbling
Olric had heard was it's falling, it's wooden skeleton ripped from
it's fleshy stone body. "This place is accursed," he said, suddenly
realizing that he had been wrong those so many years ago. He wished
that he had known before all this, before the killing and the years
of unhappiness, he wished he had known.
The Baron nodded and
Olric moved to the door at the top of the steps. The torch at the
bottom of the staircase had dwindled into a small, red, glowing
spot, which hung in the darkness like a demon's eye. Olric moved
slowly down the first step, when the Baron called to him.
"Olric," he whispered
from behind. Olric turned around to his master, who had placed the
metallic object over his hand. "The End is here, and I am its first
Harbinger," he whispered over his bloody teeth. He pushed the blades
into Olric's abdomen, and they cut deep into his flesh. Olric felt
the armor hold the blades back, however, and moved to defend himself
with his heavy sword. His traitorous, leathered foot flung itself
across the wet stone, and out from under him. He felt himself fly
backwards, and suddenly realized how strange he felt. His stomach
had become warm, almost like a dry summer's day, or the embrace of a
woman next to a fire. He smiled to himself, and he struck the hard
stone of the stairs. The darkness swirled around him, the only sight
he could see was the fleeting silhouette of his master standing at
the top of the stone stairs, the long, silver claws at his side.
Olric struck the floor, and saw the world jolt around him. He
wondered briefly why he no longer felt the warmth, or the pain he
knew must have been there. His vision narrowed to two unfocused
spots of light, and he heard, somewhere between the splashing of the
rain and the roar of God's rage, the sound of someone laughing.