The Pale Wood

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Long Knight Beneath Cold Stone

Long Knight Beneath Cold Stone

1

The sun shone bright in a cloudless sky of faded blue.

The summer sun burned with bright promises of pleasant days.

Pennants and banners waved in the warm breeze. The hill was covered in blossoms of red and yellow and blue and orange; canvas and silk tents. Knights strode imperious in thought and gesture pretending that neither the heat, nor the resulting sweat bothered them at all. The buzzing of flies simply did not exist.

These men, these knights were the true power in the principalities of the old empire. The knights served as sword and shield to princes across the land. Each man, every knight pledged to support and protect their prince.

To obey in word and deed, if not heart and mind; the truth of this was embodied by Sir Kendrick.

And for this they grew rich. They grew rich in land and title, thus earning themselves the incomes these lands afforded them. The lowest knight sworn to Prince Jasper owned land and in effect, the peasants who worked the muck for them. This was true of all the knights of Byzantis, all save one, all save Sir Kendrick.

Sir Kendrick was the only knight without land or title. He owned no tent and his armor was not polished steel washed in color. He owned no helm with elaborate plumage. He drank ale instead of wine and ate salted beef and mutton with coarse black bread. His horse was no charger, no beast of war with barding to match his armor, but instead a horse suited to pulling a cart or plow.

He sat before his cook fire and ate a meal he prepared himself. If he desired the service of a squire, none sought his tutelage and this was just as well. Sir Kendrick wanted no boy dogging his heels.

His armor was leather studded with bronze rivets. The leather was boiled to stiffen it. The leather was dark brown and stained by travel, the studs were tarnished. The padding beneath his leather was wool. Sir Kendrick sweated beneath the golden glare of the sun. He mopped his brow with a linen rag as he stirred the pot dangling over his cook fire. Satisfied he tipped the pot and caught the contents in a wooden bowl. The spoon for stirring served also as the spoon for eating. Sir Kendrick poured brackish water from a bucket into the pot before setting about eating his meal.

The porridge tasted sweet. He’d added honey and raisins. The ale however, was on the verge of turning and the sour taste of vinegar lingered on his tongue. Poverty was a constant companion.

Hedge knights earned more than Sir Kendrick, his pledge to serve Prince Jasper made many avenues of income beyond his reach due to custom. It was unseemly for a knight of the principality to serve as guard for a merchant. Hunting bandits in the forests paid poorly, save for a few bounties of outlaw princes like Eustace the Pious, Haggaran Tholl, and King Hipedes; and Sir Kendrick was only one man. Those bandits commanded numbers beyond his reach..

All around him he saw the fruits of service denied him. All he owned now was his honor and a growing bitterness. Honor he clung to as a drowning man grips the sapling even as he sinks to the silt coated bottom of the lake. The bitterness he refused to acknowledge, but in truth he was much like his ale, souring to vinegar.

His camp was closest to the bog and the castle submerged therein. None would have him closer. Most knights acted as if he wasn’t even there at all.

Sir Kendrick was the Poor Knight of the World it seemed. If he’d remained within the walls, then at least he would be free from the derisive looks and disdainful words.

A little more than a year had passed since his return from the wood behind the wall. A year since he failed in his quest. A lonely year. Success in the wood meant gold, it meant land and income, and a wife.

Failure left him without much in the way of honor, coin, or land. He possessed but a few coppers, dented and corroded. He wondered whenever he drank more than he ought to, if he might’ve been better off as the Poor Knight. The thought occurred to him then as he sat eating porridge and chasing it with drunkards ale, sweet to sour. His life seemed much the same. Before the wood there was so much promise in the future, now he was little better than a sell-sword, but with more enemies and fewer looking to hire him.

No sorcerer would give him coin, nor any who relied on them for their income. The priests in their temples, turned away from him as if he were as forgotten as the names of the gods they worshipped.

Sir Kendrick finished his porridge and drained his horn with a grimace.

He picked up his sword and belt and buckled it on. He donned the boiled leather skull cap studded with small spikes of rusting iron. He checked his dagger and strapped on his shield and hefted his spear. Emblazoned on his shield was a silver star on a field of dark blue. The star was seven pointed. The star was his sigil and the only outward sign he was a knight. The star was a symbol of promise, an omen of ascension, or so he’d been told. The paint on his shield was sun faded and chipped, so much like the promise of his future.

The other knights carried lances, pennons rippled in the breeze as they tipped their lances to the sun and rode massive beasts of war resplendent in armor. Sir Kendrick fit better with the men at arms who accompanied the knights. These were the footmen, born to low to serve as page, squire, and finally knight, so even with these hard men, Sir Kendrick did not fit.

Leading them all was Sir Longworth decked out in full plate armor, the color of the sky reflected on the polished surfaces.

The man laughed with his cronies on the hill. His helm tucked under his arm, he shaded his eyes against the sun and ignored the beads of perspiration clinging to his ever growing forehead. He pointed to the castle, sunken in the center of the bog. The words spoken were received with more laughter suggesting insight and jest, but Sir Kendrick saw it as nothing more than Sir Longworth’s companions competing to see which of them could climb furthest up his ass.

The bog, once a verdant valley, once the seat of an ancient king, spread out before the host of knights. In centuries past, the first men to come to this valley built a castle. The king, an arrogant man who lusted for more, had sought to wipe the Fey out and initiated a pogrom against them to take all they had and make it his own.

The Fey made it easy to hate them. The histories written about them claimed they were cruel creatures, so like men and so different. Sir Kendrick knew that these histories were written by men who hated the Fey, but having seen Castle Thrace, he understood that whatever bias the authors held were not far from truth; or perhaps those who imagined the evil of the Fey could not imagine enough.

The bog was called by some the King’s Folly. The castle sank when the Fey, using magic diverted a river into the valley drowning the castle and most within it. The water filled the halls and swept the ground from beneath it.

Centuries past and the water receded, the river wound its way back to its original path leaving behind a lake that became the bog, a swampy, bubbling morass that buried the castle still.

The castle still held treasure of that ancient kingdom. And many a knight and adventurer sought their fortune within the Drowned Castle, most fared no better than the king who ruled from it.

Sir Kendrick, like many before him, hoped to emerge from the cold stone a rich man, though the host of knights viewed the treasure within the castle as a secondary pursuit, the castle held something dangerous, an imminent threat to the countryside, to Byzantis, and by extension the prince of Byzantis, Jasper.

A cult sprang up in the southern principalities. The cult was driven out of all the cities and moved north. So said the messengers from the south who brought the boasts of princes and knights who no longer viewed the cult as a problem; at least no problem for them. The cult made a home for itself within the wet walls of the drowned castle.

The knights, called to arms by Prince Jasper and lead by the blessed Sir Longworth, amassed to drive them out. And slaughter every last one of them.

“Called the Cult of the Crow.” Sir Longworth had said to Sir Kendrick when he met the knight in charge. Sir Longworth summoned Sir Kendrick. Another knight would have seen this as an honor. Sir Kendrick knew better.

“Why a crow?” Sir Kendrick asked.

“A gaggle of geese, a pack of wolves, a murder of crows. Does it matter.” Sir Longworth had the habit of forming questions without asking them. And the equally obnoxious habit of evading plain answers to plain questions.

Sir Kendrick nodded his understanding; a death cult of some variety was the rumor. But they could just as easily be nothing more than a gang of outlaws, murderers, rapists, and bandits. Yes, they were driven north by other principalities, so the southern lords claimed, but none in the south truly sought to deal with the cult. So it was left to this host of knights to root out the cult in the Drowned Castle. Root them out and kill them. There were other rumors as well. Rumors of ideas dangerous to the princes, dangerous to the Temples and the Chapterhouses of the sorcerers, and such a danger must be addressed lest those ideas spread. You can’t have peasants escaping servitude through ritual suicide, or knowledge beyond their station.

Sir Kendrick knew these things and was not sure if Sir Longworth did. Being a powerful knight did not mean that he was an intelligent knight, or an informed one.

Sir Longworth was not a tall man. He wore a huge, bushy mustache that fluttered when he spoke as it completely obscured his mouth. Rumor suggested a pox buried his lips under weeping sores, a gift from a favored whore. His small eyes glared at Sir Kendrick.

“I cannot and will not expel you from this host, you are a knight,” He said it as if there were some doubt. “But, neither are you welcome.”

“As you say.” Sir Kendrick prompted the knight, best to hear it all now and be done he thought.

“Indeed.” Sir Longworth filled that word to the brim with contempt bordering hate. Sir Kendrick had entered the Wood with five other men. He emerged alone. Kos and his thief were of no consequence. Cavill, Sir Kendrick’s squire was a loss, but no great one. It was the priest Hugh and the sorcerer Stitch that created the turmoil.

Sir Kendrick’s accusation that the sorcerer had turned on the quest and murdered the others with the help of Kos was met with forced skepticism.

Sir Kendrick and Sir Longworth looked at one another across the folding table. The silk walls rippled and snapped all around.

“I do not want you here. You are poison, bad for morale. Even the squires whisper of you as a bad omen. A portent of doom.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Leave of your own volition.”

Sir Kendrick looked at Sir Longworth and was angry, defiant. How was it that by surviving he was cast as villain?

“No.” Spoke Sir Kendrick, his words edged, brooking no doubt as to his certainty.

“So, you will stay then.”

“Yes.” Sir Kendrick said.

With a look of disgust plain on his face, Sir Longworth waved him away as dismissal.

2

The Drowned Castle was crusted with dried mud save the very tops of the towers. The mud was crazed with cracks and some was crumbling in the sun.

After centuries beneath the fetid waters of the bog, the Drowned Castle was rising; to be drowned no more.

Under the summer sky, the towers of the castle jutted from soft earth. Creeping ivy gripped crumbling crenellations where the towers were above the level of the water.

So it was that the knights arrayed themselves on the edge of the bog, behind their squires.

Dirty men in black cloaks made of black feathers waited on the advancing column of knights and squires.

All the knights save Sir Kendrick road warhorses. Sir Kendrick walked with the squires over squishy ground and through hip deep channels of stagnant water home to leech and mosquito. The stench liberated by each step made more than one squire retch.

The knights carried lances tipped by flapping pennons. Sir Kendrick carried a simple spear tipped by steel in the shape of a leaf. The knights carried kite shields and Sir Kendrick carried a large round shield made of oak covered by molten bronze. The knights carried long swords on hips in glittering scabbards while in this Sir Kendrick was the same except his scabbard was simple and covered in mud, soaked by the filthy water.

The knights on horse led by Sir Longworth followed the column of squires on foot carrying long poles testing the firmness of the ground ahead. Between these two groups, a part of the host, yet shunned by both was Sir Kendrick.

Crowmen, bearing black crossbows, fired volleys at the squires along with insult. The bolts fell short and came at no particular interval, as these men owned no particular discipline in matters of war.

Sir Kendrick thought of his own squire, Cavill. Squire and faithful friend until the Wood of Bones, the Wood Within the Wall, the pale haunt of the Poor Knight. Sir Kendrick remained unsure if the betrayal resulted from the sorcerer Stitch’s treacherous glamour or something worse. How Sir Kendrick wished it was magic, but niggling doubt insisted that Cavill’s betrayal was something deeper; anger and resentment festering like a tainted wound. Sir Kendrick was plagued by the fear that the betrayal represented a fundamental flaw within Sir Kendrick that in such dire circumstances he transformed faithful friend to traitorous foe.

Squires faltered ahead. Some fell from bolts that flew past upraised shields, others to the unsure footing of the bog. Spongy earth gave way to fetid water the color of a diseased man’s bowels as plague ripped the last water from a failing body and the smells that boiled up fit the look of it. Flies buzzed.

Still, they pressed on, inching toward the tops of towers once high, but sunk low by ambition, arrogance, and malice, yet rising again.

The sound of horses screaming caused Sir Kendrick to turn his head. Behind him the swamp rose in a swell, a bubble of stinking mud rising, rising, rising like a wave, like a nightmare monster belching fetid gas and moaning in a low rumble. The thought of a table being tipped up leapt to Sir Kendrick’s mind, then, the squishy ground beneath him gave way as the wave, the monster, the table top, crashed down on him and the ground, such as it was gave way.

3

His lungs burned. The sense of a weight pressing on his chest gave way as he ceased to sink and instead fell.

As the bog rose up and crashed down on him, Sir Kendrick raised his shield above his head and was pressed down into the muck. As the fetid water burned his eyes and filled his nose, he almost wished for oblivion to blow his thoughts away, but oblivion left him to his pains and panic as he sank through the muck.

He tumbled through stinking mud in a slurry of motion. It filled his nostrils with the stink of stagnant water and damp earth. The grit pressed between his clenched teeth and danced on his tongue. His tortured lungs burned, screamed for him to open his mouth, unclench his throat, and inhale! He fought his own instincts as thought became frantic and dim.

His first breath was that of brackish water that he then coughed and retched up. He hung for just a moment by his shield, dangling in the pitch dark not even night could achieve.

Then he dropped.

He hit slanted stone coughing and sliding with the torrent of mud flowing down in the darkness.

Sir Kendrick slid across the surface flailing hands fighting the rush of the muck seeking purchase to stem his slide into deeper darkness. Gone was his shield. Gone too, his gloves and his right boot. Finally, his fingers caught between the seams of stones, so too did his toes. He clung to these small holds with trembling fingers as the muck washed over him, pressed into him, sought to break him free and drag him deeper into nightmare darkness.

He drew his dagger and wedged it between the stones and turned away from the flow coughing and spitting and breathing and hanging on.

His eyes watered.

Time in the absolute darkness lost all meaning. So, in time, the flow of mud slowed and stopped.

He lay on the floor for some time after the flow stopped and waited. He realized he couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed.

Sir Kendrick stood on wobbly legs. His left shoulder ached. His body ached.

He blinked grit and grime from his eyes, but sight refused to return. He was blind, though realization dawned that this was a blindness brought on by absolute darkness not damage to his person. He swore softly and the sound echoed. It was his spear he missed now. The shaft could serve him in the dark, act as a probe for what was to come, but it was gone and that was perhaps the least of his problems. He had a sense of where he was, but niggling panic fluttering within demanded to be heard and insisted that his was the cold belly of a beast, the rocky guts of the world eater. Sir Kendrick stifled a sob. He hiccupped and the sound echoed. In the darkness he was invisible, and for this he was thankful.

“I am a knight.” He said to the black with a growl and the sound of his voice, though it cracked and shook, gained strength at the end, with the word knight. The strength filtered through tense muscles and bones made brittle by fear.

With his bare right hand he groped out and found cold, slimy stone. It occurred to him that he was doubled over at the waist and so stood upright slowly, half expecting to strike his head on stone above. He did not.

Keeping his hand on the wall he took cautious steps forward, his direction determined by nothing more than keeping his hand on the wall.

Loss threatened to overwhelm him. His long sword was lost. His sword was gone to the mud. The sword was simple one, but well made of steel. The sword was a gift from his father. It was the last gift from his father. The sword was all that remained to him that connected him to family. As the second son, Sir Kendrick stood to inherit nothing. He had in fact been encouraged to join the priesthood, but the life of priests never suited him.

So in spite of his father, Sir Kendrick set out for knighthood. And true to his promise, took Cavill with him.

Cavill, his childhood friend, son of the foreman who oversaw the vineyard estate Sir Kendrick grew up on.

It was being a second son that prompted him to volunteer for the quest into the Wood.

Cavill was gone. Cavill was dead, he’d died a traitor. Sir Kendrick told no one. He altered the events in the Wood to spare his friend the mark of a betrayer and in so doing proved to all he was a liar.

Though none knew what his lie was, they knew he’d lied and so the whispers began.

The whispers, birthed rumor and supposition and thus was Sir Kendrick outcast. Untouched by any law save those that govern social norms.

That last vestige of life before the Wood was gone. A sword, it was a simple sword from a father to a second son; a father who now called that son dead and refused to address or be addressed by a ghost.

In darkness complete, Sir Kendrick crawled fearing the incline, fearing a slide backwards that would drop him below and into the chasm that swallowed the mud flow that dragged him into this Hell of blackness. So, he crawled up. Dagger and finger and toe finding purchase between stone.

And in time, he reached the edge and rested.

The edge was itself a horror. There was no light by which to see how far down he could fall. He reached over, probing with fingers he expected to lose to some abyssal monster born of the black and mothered by darkness, and beholden only to hunger.

His fingers brushed water, cold and repulsive. How deep? Only one way to know.

His mouth was dry. Water, water everywhere, but none to drink. And he hungered.

It was his thirst and his hunger that made him slip over the edge and drop into the chill, stinking water.

He gasped at the cold and flailed at the depth which was no higher than his waist at its deepest. Sir Kendrick stood and after some work, found the wall and slogged on trailing his hand across the mud caked stone.

The air was stale and still. Water to mid thigh sloshed loudly in the silence.

“Damn this darkness.” He muttered, then flinched at the sound it made and listened for any other sounds. He heard nothing and so resumed a slow trek; two steps, stop, listen, two steps, stop, listen two steps and so on.

Time passes strange in the black. Sight obliterated creates its own vision. For Sir Kendrick, the black ahead blossomed into pink. The color glowed, emitting a dull, throbbing pulse that beat too slow for a healthy heart, but for a man broken by seeing the infinite..? The shadows of trees grew in the rancid light, the bark peeled away to reveal pale wood beneath, skin flayed from bone. Gods, all but forgotten, names lost in the mists of time, lost in the extinction of those who loved them best and in turn hated them most, spoke in whispers broken by the slogging steps through frigid water. The whispers on the edge of hearing faded into the black when he ceased his forward progress.

Sir Kendrick bathed in the terrible beauty of these, his delusions, his sanity temporarily ruptured, in an instant the schism tearing him from that which was real and that which he imagined, or so some small voice deep inside him demanded he realize. It was this voice that staved off the panic, that let him ride the wave of pink that could so easily destroy him. Had Hugh not suffered beneath the gaze of a pink monster, a god forgotten perhaps even to itself? Yes.

But…

Another voice, tiny and whispering, low and mean laughed and said it was all real. He lurched ahead, fingers on stone when…

His fingers brushed across something slimy and yielding. Not stone, he jumped at the touch. His mind conjured all manner of possibilities, none of them good, none of them true. He placed his hand on it, whatever it was, again and pushed. Something hard lay beneath it. He continued on. After six steps he felt stone once again and released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

He wished for light, anything but pink.

At some point, he felt something swim by him and brush his leg. He shouted and it was gone, but the echoes kept him from hearing anymore.

He tripped, falling forward, he expected to crash into the filthy sludge he’d been slogging through for what seemed like hours, days, moths, or was it years? Was he to emerge into light to find his face obscured by gray beard and the wrinkles of time?. But no. His left arm he threw up, though he grimaced from the pain that jolted up through his shoulder. He reached out with his hand and found slick stone, cut stone, cut in the shape of stairs and a sickening realization filled him. He was inside the castle, somehow he was inside. In the depths of stone wrought by men destroyed by the Fey.

He rose and began climbing the steps.

There was a rumble. Slow and throbbing was how it began and he thought, please no, no pink. The floor vibrated and the walls shook. The sound of stone grinding on stone drove him down. He couldn’t say how long it lasted, but when it stopped he was curled up on the floor at the foot of the stairs and the water that had been as high as his thighs was no more than a thick, lumpy film on the floor. The sludge drained away had gripped him and pulled, had tried to drag him back into that terrible black. He ached from the fight.

His eyes clenched tightly closed, opened.

And there was light.

Little enough light, but enough for him to see. Sir Kendrick was sprawled on the floor of a narrow passage. The walls were blocks of granite stacked one atop the next with mortar in between the stones.

The light filtered wanly from above; from the stairs leading upward, into that light. A beacon that perhaps he was not yet dead. This realization put to rest a fear unacknowledged till it was put to rest.

He could see now the trails left by his fingers in the wall and then across the rotted tapestry that hung limp. The image depicted, he thought must have been once merry, or beautiful, a scene of a hunt, a king and a stag perhaps. What remained of the picture was somehow sinister and evil, couched in shadow, covered in muck; but Sir Kendrick was wrong, the tapestry depicted evil now as always.

The knight regained his feet and staggered up the steps, bent over, steadying himself with his free hand, climbing towards gray light.

At the top of the stairs, Sir Kendrick found himself in a long, wide hall. Rusty cages hung from rusty chains, held to the stone ceiling by rusty rings. Within the cages were bones too big to slip through the bottom. Beneath the cages streaked muck.

Sir Kendrick, eyes wide, seeing the dungeon, imagining it’s horrors, clutched his dagger.

This place, this terrible place was a torture chamber. Legend and folklore claimed that the dungeons beneath the Drowned Castle were vast, some said bigger than the castle itself, all claimed the dungeons to be haunted by the Fey once tortured and held here. The darkest tales told of rape, the swelling of bellies and the birthing of Halflings who were sacrificed to those ancient Forgotten Gods worshiped by man and Fey alike.

Perhaps, thought the knight, the Cult of the Crow is not simply brigands pretending to be a death cult, but a death cult pretending to banditry.

4

Despite the grim nature of the chamber, Sir Kendrick opted to rest there. After all, what were ghosts of the Fey compared to an aspect of one of their gods. This he’d seen within Castle Thrace, that Fey castle centered in the Wood of Bones; the thought of the priest Hugh coming to faith in the eyes of a god sent shivers through him. Sir Kendrick looked at the black stair leading down and thought of his own dreams of that aspect.

In the dim light that filtered through fissures in the walls and from above he squatted. He laid down. The leather he wore was sodden.

He scrubbed his hands against each other, drying the mud and watching it flake off. Once done, he set about clearing his ears and nose of the muck as best he could.

And he was exhausted.

The crux of his problems was that. Slogging through a bog is hard work. Doing so while preparing to kill or be killed amplified every sensation including fatigue. Being swallowed by the spongy earth deepened his exhaustion, and traipsing through the dungeon as it shuddered and awoke worsened this sensation.

“Rest my eyes,” he found himself muttering, or was he yelling. His words echoed in any case and he wondered how long he’d been talking aloud.

Sir Kendrick found the darkest corner and rested his head on his arm. The leather was cold and clammy, unyielding. Sleep found him soon after.

In dreams comes the truth. So it was for Sir Kendrick. His were filled with men black as soot with wings to match. Sir Kendrick dreamt of crumbling walls and trees flayed by mist, baring their pale bones beneath the freshly stripped bark; these trees, harbingers of death marching slowly across the years to cover the world.

Sir Kendrick awoke to murmurs, laughter and whimpering. He opened his eyes and saw the flickering yellow flame of a torch enter the torture chamber. The light, now alien, burned his eyes and he squinted into it. He saw two men through eyes narrowed to slits and a third who was trussed up. The third was no man, not yet. The third of them was a boy.

The torch bearer looked around and Sir Kendrick saw a twisted smile spread. He turned to the other dressed in black and said:

“Here we are, the perfect spot.” His voice was soft, the tone suggested both kindness and cruelty. The second man, a larger fellow dressed like the first in black dropped the trussed up one he carried with a thump. It was from that one that the whimpering came. A whimpering boy tied up and carried to a remote place by a pair of men. It offered nothing good for the boy.

Sir Kendrick began to move. His movements made slow and exaggerated in an effort to remain an unknown. He kept his eyes to thin slits and in a crouch approached.

The soft spoken Crowman in black passed the torch to the second larger man whose pox ridden face was sweaty and eager. The boy was on his belly. The soft spoken man grabbed the child’s hips and pulled. He tore the child’s trousers down and began to unlace his own trousers. The soft spoken man spat in his palm and gripped himself.

The boy began to cry. It was a soft cry, pitiful yes, but somehow stoic.

“Do not cry girl, the others we will sacrifice, but you, you are our whore. This is a great honor. You will like it, I promise.”

The bigger Crowman snorted.

Sir Kendrick saw and thought the boy looked familiar, looked like a squire.

“Ready or not, here I come.” The Crowman said in his soft voice. He smiled at his big friend who stood rigid, fear etched on his uneven face, the blood draining from his face slowly.

“What?”

The big Crowman pointed behind his conspirator. He saw an apparition of eyes in a mask of darkness. Cracks showed in the mask revealing pale skin beneath. The Crowman saw teeth as well. Bared teeth gleaming wet and white in the flickering torchlight twisted into the shape of a smile, or a grimace, the big man could not tell.

“Ugh…” was the best he could muster for words.

The smooth talker looked quizzical. He began to turn, but before he could move too far…

Grabbing a handful of greasy hair and yanking back, Sir Kendrick dragged the dagger’s edge across the soft spoken Crowman’s throat spraying blood. A gurgling filled the air and mingled with the geyser of blood exploding from the dying man’s throat. The blood sprayed in time with his fading heartbeat and droplets reached the ceiling, sizzled as they struck the torch, and blinded the pox faced Crowman who fumbled for his sword, but it was too late. Sir Kendrick leapt forward over the crying boy and bleeding man draped over the boy. Sir Kendrick rammed the dagger through patched woolen trousers finding the pulsing artery just inches below the suddenly flaccid cock of the pox faced Crowman and twisting and wrenching his blade free, notching the bone. A similar spray of blood erupted from the fatal wound. Sir Kendrick clamped filthy fingers over the dying man’s mouth and shoved him to the floor. Atop the pox faced man, Sir Kendrick drove his dagger deep, again and again.

The torch fell to the damp stone and guttered. The side lying on the floor went black.

Dancing shadows accompanied Sir Kendrick as he picked up the torch before any more damp could soak into it. He found a sconce and set the torch in it carefully lest age collapse the rusted iron.

He turned to the boy who stared, eyes wide with fear. Shit streaked his legs. Sir Kendrick had seen that before. Once had done it himself in his first battle, as the horns sounded the advance. Nightmares of that day plagued him still. The boy was on his knees, the would be rapist lay in a shuddering heap behind him. Blood pumped in ragged uneven bursts as the dead man’s heart pushed evermore precious blood free of his body.

“Get up boy.” He said.

“Are you a ghost?” The boy asked.

Sir Kendrick smiled. It must have been a terrible smile, for the boy cringed to see it.

Though he felt like a ghost much of the time, he was not. “No, I am a knight, I am Sir Kendrick.”

The boy looked at him with confusion. “Have you come to rescue us?”

Sir Kendrick thought about that and perhaps he was. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

The boy slumped in relief. “Only you… Sir?”

“For now.”

The knight looked at the squire and grimaced thinking of another squire.

“What is your name boy?”

“Aemon.”

“Help me strip these men Aemon.” Sir Kendrick bent to the corpse and looked at the boy. He seemed in a far off place. “First dead man?”

Aemon shook his head no and said in a soft voice. “I saw a man hanged.”

Sir Kendrick nodded. “By your own hand?”

“No.” Said the boy in a whisper.

Sir Kendrick looked into soft eyes that seemed glazed and distant, but somehow present as well. He wondered if saving Aemon had been a kindness. He wondered if perhaps the squire might not be better off dead. Soon perhaps. Soon, Aemon would kill or be killed, perhaps both. Sir Kendrick saw no reason to tell the boy this dire news. Not yet, he was more boy than man, but soon that would change.

5

The pox faced corpse had carried a battle axe. The edge of the blade was notched and nicked. Sir Kendrick was loathe to use it, but he saw no way Aemon could swing it properly. Between the two corpses, they found three daggers, a hatchet, short sword, and of course the battle axe. Aemon was outfitted in the soft spoken Crowman’s garb. He carried the short sword on his hip.

And boots for Sir Kendrick.

Sir Kendrick bundled up the rest and slung it over one shoulder. Je wished he still had his shield. The shield, in both shape and construction was antiquated, but suited him he thought.

The pair took the torch and, Aemon leading the way, were off to free the squires who yet lived. Of the more than fifty boys, only nineteen or twenty survived.

Sir Kendrick wore the cloak of the pox faced man. Black feathers were woven into the wool. He suspected that most if not all were not feathers from a crow or raven, but rather chicken feathers dyed black with soot.

The dungeon of the Drowned Castle was vast. It was a maze of corridors lined with cells too small for a man to either sit or stand in. Old bones littered the floor, echoes of an age of cruelty that had yet to end, though the end had reached this castle.

Fortunately, they did not have far to go before climbing a set of stairs, Sir Kendrick sighed in relief that their course was so straightforward and did not take them far down the twisted corridors he saw at a glimpse.

Ahead, Sir Kendrick saw the light of several torches. He hefted the axe and strode forward into a large stone room. Hogtied boys littered the floor and a single man sat on a stool, leaned back against a pillar. He looked at Sir Kendrick and Aemon.

“That was fast. Hope ya did’n kill the lad ‘fore I got my go. Evanov’ll skin us if we take anudder.” This man looked old and worn, ravaged by wine more than work or time. He sported a patchy beard turning gray and with a practiced finger probed the depths of his nose for some nugget upon which to snack.

From thirty feet away Sir Kendrick could smell the sour stench of wine, sweat, and piss coming off the man. Sir Kendrick quickened his pace and the leaning Crowman’s eyes widened with realization, the bit of gold clinging to a grimy finger; but the battle axe struck him before he could do more than lurch forward, rocking his stool to stamp his boots on stone and defend himself. The blow that struck him as the stool danced on its three legs was clumsy. Sir Kendrick was at best familiar with the use of an axe, but he would never claim mastery. Aiming for the throat, he instead caught the chin. Strength and ferocity did the work, still it was a clumsy cut that required multiple blows to separate head from body. And the head lay scattered in uneven pieces looking something like a pulped melon.

While Sir Kendrick engaged in butcher’s work that would forever preclude him from a career as a headsman, Aemon cut the rest of the squires free.

Twenty boys including Aemon. Of all the squires, only twenty, and that number dwindled quickly as one boy, weak with exhaustion drowsed and slept so still as to never waken again.

And so they were nineteen. They were all quite young, twelve or thirteen mostly with a few aged ten and eleven and one who was sixteen. His name was Jericho.

Jericho was a strong boy, big too. Whereas Aemon was beautiful, not just for a boy, but in his own right, Jericho was plain. What set him apart was his size and a look in his eyes that was both brutish and kind. Jericho’s eyes were dark, flashing amber in the torchlight.

Jericho looked at Sir Kendrick and held out a hand. Sir Kendrick nodded and put the axe in the boys hands. He hefted the axe, tested the edge with a thumb, shook his head, sighed and accepted that it was the best he would get.

Sir Kendrick was relieved to be rid of the axe and took up the short sword of the Crowman so committed to mining his nose he was unable to do more than die horribly.

Aemon began giving out the few weapons available. The headless Crowman favored daggers and knives and so carried four on his person. They left him with his whip as none knew its use and the sight of it sickened Sir Kendrick.

“I am Sir Kendrick,” the knight said.

The boys nodded, they knew him and looked on him a little differently than they had just that morning.

“Now, we take the castle and kill these black birdies.” Sir Kendrick looked each boy in the eye as he spoke. He spoke soft letting each word hang for a tick as he found the eyes of the boys. “We kill every last one of them.”

Jericho stifled an excited laugh.

6

The Drowned Castle once had another name, like the Fey who sank the castle, that name is lost to time.

Sir Kendrick emerged from the dungeons followed by a ragtag force of squires, boys so green, so young, he wondered how many sported more than fuzz beneath trousers caked with mud and shit.

Jericho brought up the rear with the axe, Aemon, Sir Kendrick kept close. Though neither Jericho nor Aemon was what could be called battle hardened- they were so green, so new- but they both possessed a strength that Sir Kendrick admired; and more important, needed.

They were as thieves, the lot of them, walking slow and soft down damp corridors. They spoke only when absolutely necessary and then only in whispers. The niggling thought of honor lost and ignored was pushed down into quaking bellies.

Time and experience had taught Sir Kendrick hard lessons about honor. A part of him longed for that juvenile thrill of adventure he once shared with Cavill. First as boys, they pretended at battle using sticks as swords and dueling for honor and glory, and laughter. Later, after Sir Kendrick left the estate seeking a knight to train him and take him as a squire, he promised Cavill he would return a knight and in turn Cavill was to be his squire. And Sir Kendrick had done so. Honor demanded it. Honor. Glory. Blood and guts was more like it. And cowardice. The weight of it all pressing him down so that he couldn’t act. Was it magic? Or his own inadequacy? Did it matter?

Certainly honor and glory only mattered if you owned a purse filled with coin. Even then, Sir Kendrick saw how the knights treated those they saw as less than.

So, like a thief he led a ragtag group of boys through the Drowned Castle for purposes of murder.

Through an arch where once a door stood, the wood gone, iron hinges and bands remaining like broken fingers clutching a gaping wound, Sir Kendrick saw the sky. Night fell while he was beneath the cold stones of this castle that was as much a coffin. A coffin being excavated, a grave robbed by crows in the guise of men.

Clear sky beckoned. Stars blistered the blackness of eternity and ringed the pallor of the moon in a swirling halo. The air was crisp and clean and smelled of life. The air smelled clean even through the bits of mud that still clung within his nose.

Sir Kendrick halted his boys and walked out onto the balcony. The vantage point offered him a view of the valley. He saw a cluster of fires on a hillside and thought of his fellow knights. He sneered at that thought. Though he was a knight as much as they, that was where any fellowship ended. The fraternity of knights was a bad joke. Chivalry a fiction invented for men to surrender with honor, be taken prisoner, and ransomed back to their families. It was how many knights earned their living. It was how Sir Kendrick’s elder brother died. Sir Barthem had failed to lower his sword and shield enough to satisfy the knight who slew him. There was a time when Sir Kendrick thought the death of his brother was just.

Sir Kendrick looked upon the valley at night and was reminded of all that was lost to him for honor and glory.

The Drowned Castle is risen, he thought, and so am I. But that was not strictly true. Rise the castle had, but not all the way and not all at once. There was work yet to be done. The work of a magicians hands working tools beyond the ken of all but a few men. The castle was much like Sir Kendrick in this way, buried, but climbing free of the much, clawing towards clarity.

Sir Kendrick thought of Stitch, and this Crowman who was pulling a castle from the depths of the earth by magic and will. The boys, the squires had heard talk of sacrifice and blood to feed the magician strength to raise the Drowned Castle.

How he hated them, these dabblers in the unnatural powers. Sorcerers were men to be gutted. Icy fear chilled his blood at these thoughts. He feared magic, hated the fear, hated the way it grabbed him and seized control.

Sir Kendrick backed away from the railing, went inside, and looked on expectant faces. He shook his head and kept moving. The squires followed him and he marveled at the foolishness of boys.

As they walked he was struck by the realization that the balcony, while high, was not high enough. The castle was at least in part, still drowned.

The castle, monstrosity that it was, was well designed once they were free of the dungeons. Every corridor linked to a series of corridors laid out in concentric rings. Stairs to the next level alternated positions on the compass, but always on an inner ring. Five towers had been visible the day before, four at each compass point and one central spire that stretched for sky. The four outer towers connected the outer wall to the inner keep via high arched bridges that hours previous were buried in mud, and that mud was drying, cracking, and flaking off. Like the skin of a snake, molting, sloughing free.

Sir Kendrick knew that the true power in the Cult of the Crow, the true threat came from whomever was dragging this castle from its grave and creating a stronghold to stand against the various principalities in the realm. He suspected that the power on display was far beyond that of the sorcerers with whom he was familiar.

Slowly, they continued on. Each scrape of bare heel on cold stone was amplified, deafening and infuriating. The knight expected ambush at every turn, every blind corner, but none came. No earsplitting cries accompanied by axes and knives manifested.

The moon having risen, having climbed steps unseen to her apex and calling the stars to encircle her, set. Stars glared at them like baleful, accusatory eyes through arrow slits and windows. Night gripped the land and steadfastly refused to let go. Twice the castle rumbled and shook, shrieked and wailed as it stretched for the angry stars above. Each time they fell, the quaking stone leapt and danced. Boys cried, but pressed on.

Grinding stone drowned the terrified wails and sobs as once rivers drowned the castle into the watery grave from which it now emerged stone by stone.

Sir Kendrick led on and up and finally, eyes burning from fatigue and strain, he saw a glimmer of light on the distant horizon, the cold glimpse of dawn just begun. A narrow line a shade lighter than the black sky stretched across the far horizon.

He turned away and rounded a bend and saw the throne room occupied by more Crowmen than he cared to count.

7

The Crowmen lay sprawled across the floor in unruly heaps. Snores wafted from fetid mouths full of brown and yellow teeth. To a man they all wore black. They all lay sleeping. Slumbering they dreamt dreams of conquest and rape. Dreams of blood and terror where each sat on a throne of bones and governed the unfornutae souls under their command… or so Sir Kendrick imagined.

All slept and dreamed. All but one.

That one sat cross-legged in a circle of candles burning with the cold light of stars. He was a small man with a pale complexion, a long dark beard shot with gray framed his narrow face and obscured his chin. His eyes were closed. Nimble fingers, relaxed and curled, rested on knobby knees. He looked peaceful, this monster, this man who used magic to achieve his ends, this leader of crows. This Crow that fed off the blood of boys to fuel his power.

Sir Kendrick heard teeth chattering. Green boys. All of them. He looked back in the wan light and saw fear. All except for Jericho, he looked ready, he looked made for this moment. A grin stretched from ear to ear exposing too small, white teeth.

The knight waved Jericho forward, his face saying, Come and see. And Jericho did. Sir Kendrick leaned close, his lips pressed to Jericho’s ear. He told the boy what to do and told him to pass it along to the other boys. Next, Sir Kendrick motioned for Aemon. As with Jericho, so it was with Aemon.

Sir Kendrick watched the sitting man and waited. As he waited, the boys spread out. Those who were armed paired with those not yet armed. The boys hung back as Sir Kendrick and Jericho stepped gingerly amongst the sleeping Crowmen. On tiptoes he stepped and stretched, skirting the supine bodies when he was able, stepping over them when needed. Sir Kendrick inched his way to a spot designated by his plan.

The knight thought about his plan, if it could be called a plan. The stratagem was damn near insane. Doubt demanded he recognize the insanity of his plan, and how the plan insured that which he most wished to avoid; a slaughter of boys. Sir Kendrick was a man with twenty-three years. This last year being the hardest. The last year was a crucible of sorts.

He’d never commanded more than a few men, one being his own squire, Cavill. Poor Cavill, deceived, either by glamour or lies. Cavill had turned against him. Cavill was his best friend. That still stung. It was an ache that gnawed from within. It was doubt. It was why he stood amongst a small horde of murderers. If his plan failed, and it must, he would not live long enough to bear the shame or regret of this failure.

Sir Kendrick turned to Aemon and lifted his sword above his head. His eyes locked with Aemon’s, there was no doubt the boy saw him.

Sir Kendrick plunged the tip of his sword into the spine of the nearest Crowman. Jericho brought his axe down hard on a Crowman who never woke from his dreams and never would, though his dreams of rape and plunder ended abruptly.

Sir Kendrick heard the thrum and saw the vibrating bolt jutting from the bearded man’s chest. The wizard, sorcerer, or whatever he was called stood up. And for a moment, Sir Kendrick thought, he won’t die. He almost screamed it as terror welled up in him. The narrow face contorted into a mask of rage. White fingers clutched air in a white knuckle grip and his mouth began to move and Sir Kendrick felt the weight of his sword. He felt the weight of his burdens as they threatened to push him down.

Sir Kendrick roared and struck another Crowman as those around him began to stir.

Then, the Black Magic Crow collapsed in a heap of wool, leather, bones, and feathers.

Jericho stood fifty feet from him surrounded by rousing Crowmen, then he was lost to sight as the black clad men rose.

Like Jericho, Sir Kendrick was surrounded. The knight issued another wordless, screaming challenge and began hacking at the men around him with his sword, hilt gripped by two hands, swings made without thought, without a mind to precision, but only to hack into flesh, to snap sinew, part muscle, smash bone, and create fountains from which only the coppery water of life gushed and only for as long as it took for hearts to cease pumping.

Sir Kendrick thought he heard Jericho do the same.

It was a slaughter. One sided by any measure. The young squires on the edge of the mass, armed with daggers and knives if armed at all darted in with quick cuts while those without scrambled for weapons of their own as Crowmen, eyes crusted by sleep rose and fell.

Aemon, stinking of shit and fear slashed with his short sword, abandoning the crossbow. The few other boys armed with crossbows used them as clubs once they’d spent the loaded bolt.

Had the Crowmen been alert and upright from the start, it would have been different. Still groggy with sleep, hands empty, they became angry, armed men, but too late to do any more than die.

When all was done, the gray light of a new day filled the throne room in the central tower. Dead and dying Crowmen lay scattered across the slick marble. Amongst the dead were five boys whose names Sir Kendrick never knew, their faces masked with blood and gore were something of a mercy for him as he could not remember how they looked in life.

Jericho bore wounds on his face and body that would never heal quite right leaving him scarred, deformed. Unconcerned by injury the boy, no, Sir Kendrick thought, the man, waded among the corpses seeking the wounded and finished them off with the axe. The sound of the dull blade striking marble elicited no small amount of weeping.

Aemon, the beautiful boy looked serious, his filthy face streaked by tears suffered no injury whatever, not a scratch.

Sir Kendrick bore the marks of battle. He’d expected to die and so he fought with a recklessness he was unaccustomed to. His cuts and bruises were not fatal provided they were cared for.

He walked out onto a terrace overlooking the valley and saw Sir Longworth’s host. He saw the castle had been raised high indeed, but not so high as to expose the gates more than a few feet. He would crawl out of this place.

It was a womb from which to be reborn.

8

They fashioned litters to carry their dead and descended to the courtyard. Aemon used his modest skill as a healer to staunch and dress wounds requiring it.

At the gate, Sir Kendrick sent Aemon through. The boy was Longworth’s own squire. On impulse, Sir Kendrick nearly knighted every surviving boy, but changed his mind. Let someone else do it, someone whose honor had a more solid foundation. He had no desire to taint these he’d fought with, with any more association to him than was absolutely necessary.

Sunlight splashed the courtyard. Sir Kendrick shivered.

Wounds were scrubbed free of dirt with boiled water and wrapped in fresh linen.

Sir Kendrick ate and drank and then made his way to the gate. A trench was dug to allow a man to enter and duck low. So he did.

“Kendrick!” Sir Longworth shouted and Sir Kendrick stopped. He tried to ignore the absence of title, but found that difficult, that title was almost all he had, all that separated him from men-at-arms and sell-swords.

“My lord,” Sir Kendrick inclined his head.

Sir Longworth strode forward and rested curled fists on his hips. “Where are you going?”

“To collect the spoils of war.”

Longworth harrumphed.

It was his right, and though the Cult of the Crow was purported to be bandits, they had little in the way of treasure. Even so, a few coins would be welcome. Sir Kendrick had little to show for this venture.

Sir Kendrick turned to leave.

“You will ask my leave as long as you are part of my host.”

Aemon was nearby and Sir Kendrick looked his way, Jericho appeared beside him.

“I was never part of your host my lord, you made that clear. I am impoverished. I lost my sword, my shield and my boots among other things and Sir Longworth, I will seek recompense in there.” Sir Kendrick pointed to the castle.

Sir Kendrick walked away. He heard Sir Longworth draw his sword and turned.

“Turn your back on me again, Kendrick and we will see what kind of knight you are.” Sir Longworth growled, anger glittered in his watery eyes. His sword shone bright and sharp in the morning light. The cross guard and pommel glittered with gold inlay. Sir Kendrick wondered if that sword was tested in battle.

Sir Kendrick drew his own sword. The steel was scratched and pitted, no light danced across the blade. Nicks and gouges ran the length of the edge that sorely needed sharpening. He looked from his blade to the others and sheathed it. Sir Longworth quivered.

“I’m a knight whose sword demands blood. But I’ve had enough to drink.” Sir Kendrick said.

Sir Kendrick strode away into the castle and Sir Longworth stood holding his sword and knew he was beaten. Sir Longworth looked around him at the knights and squires who with effort affected postures suggesting they had witnessed nothing of consequence, but that of course was a fiction.

9

Sir Kendrick walked the halls of the formerly Drowned Castle torch held high. He retraced his steps and found the dungeon, found the torture chamber.

Along the way, he’d picked through the corpses of slaughtered Crowmen scraping together more coin than he dared hope for. He found as much gold as silver and a sturdy pouch in which to carry it. A few of the dead men wore rings and earrings with glittering stone baubles that caught the light. And a decent pair of boots that fit well and looked sturdy.

On his way down he saw no tapestries. All rotted long ago. All but the one hanging in a corridor in the dungeon.

He descended the steps and soon faced the tapestry. He saw the mark of his fingers.

The tapestry hung heavy, sagging from the pins holding it up. Sir Kendrick studied it holding the torch close. Steam billowed as the muck dried even more. He scraped mud away and saw a scene of anguish and violence, of Fey with terrible smiles raping and slaughtering men, it was a Hell on earth. The tapestry was an abomination, a testament to the darkness of man and Fey alike. He could sense the pleasure the weaver took in crafting the tapestry, and smell the depth of the rot that permeated it.

Sir Kendrick tried to set it afire, but it would not take and he tore it down. Behind the tapestry was a recess.

Sir Kendrick stared at it horrified. He set down his torch. He struggled to fold and roll the tapestry, then he removed the item from the recess and rolled it into the tapestry. He tied the bundle tight and slung it over his shoulder. Then he left.

In the recess had been a skull, but not a man’s skull, nor the skull of the Fey. Sir Kendrick had seen both and this was something different. Covering the skull was a series of glyphs painted in a rusty brown that shown clear against the yellow bone.

Sir Kendrick walked from the Drowned Castle burdened by the tapestry and the skull hidden in its folds. A dark mood settled on his shoulders.

It seemed too fantastic to be coincidence that he should have found the skull and tapestry in the maze of dungeons below the Drowned Castle just a year after his failed quest in the Wood. It smacked of a plot, or destiny. It filled him with dread thinking that something beyond his power was pushing him one way or another. And worse, he had little idea what this power could be.

After his return from the Wood, the priests of the forgotten Gods had asked after Hugh’s papers, the map, his sealed instructions; Sir Kendrick told them it was lost. They seemed relieved. It was a lie they believed, because Sir Kendrick thought they wanted to. But he’d kept the map and the description of the artifact they’d sought in Castle Thrace in the Wood Within the Wall.

The artifact was simply, a painted Fey skull.

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