Part Two: Pawns
They become stronger with each we slay, while the recent increase in our own numbers only seems likely to weaken us. Now is the world turned upside-down, the worst of creatures triumphant while the good – and those who would aspire to be better than they have lived thus far – are powerless to act.
But I am ahead of myself, the urgency with which I must write this entry leading to a leap that must confuse the reader of my narrative. I had told of how we set off with the body of the dead Cornumbrian. As we approached the village, three other Cornumbrian warriors came riding towards us, shouting accusations that we had murdered their comrade. There was no chance to explain the situation – indeed, what words could explain it? They tried to ride us down. Two were slain. The third was thrown from his saddle and my sword cut his thigh to the bone. It happened almost as swiftly as I have written it down.
After, when I came to look in the hedge where I had flung the body of the first Cornumbrian, I found the faerie folk had again stolen it. And this time we let them keep it.
The Cornumbrians’ intent had also been to steal Luchan’s horse, which I think excused us taking ownership of their own horses. Luchan nonetheless treated the survivor, saving his limb, and we gave him his own horse and money back. Luchan warned him that if he came to us again with thoughts of revenge, his limb would wither and any he brought with him would die as his other comrades had died.
And so it was we rode on to Blunton in greater comfort than before. It pleased me to gallop out on horseback again, and feel the horse’s delight in speed and freedom and the air in our nostrils, man and beast. God’s Creation is such that even the most tortured souls may snatch such instants of blameless joy, which I feel may be glimpses into the enduring Paradise that is to come.
A moment of conversation on the road was later to take on great importance, so I relate it here. Surveying the fields we passed, Luchan told me of a parable of Our Saviour, where He spoke of a shepherd who went in search of a single lost lamb, even to the peril of the rest of the flock that he left untended. This story struck me as bewildering and yet plausible, for if the purpose of God could be made out in lines of simple common sense then there would be no need of scripture or faith. Therefore, on our arrival in Blunton, I determined to visit the local parson, whom I gave sixpence for the upkeep of his chapel roof and asked if he knew the parable that Luchan had related. He said that he did, and that it was one of the best-known of Our Saviour’s lessons.
Reader, have patience if like me you chafe at these matters of book learning and academe. For next I went to Father Cullon’s room and asked him about this parable. And he told me that he knew no such parable, and that indeed its teaching was absurd for it flew in the face of logic and good commercial sense. It was at that moment I knew Cullon to be something other than a holy man, and I thought also of a certain black noose given to me by one who can coerce my service, this noose said by that one to be the sole means of defeating Cullon. Although at that point I had not yet resolved to make use of the item, it began to be a comfort that I had it – and that despite who had given it to me, and the way he had induced me to use it.
Blunton is Denarth’s home, and having departed there under a cloud he was wary of introducing himself to the town guards. All the same, a confrontation was inevitable so we took steps to make sure it would take place in our own inn under our own terms, after I had first befriended the guards and bought them a few drinks, while Luchan and I stayed on hand to ensure their meeting with Denarth remained uneventful.
Meantime, motivated by boredom, Arandor took himself out to the latrine, hid himself behind the garden wall, and waited to pick the pockets of any of the town guard who ventured outside to relieve themselves.
At the same instant, Denarth was in his room deciding whether to come down and face the guards. As he looked out from the window, he saw in the moonlight dark figures that seemed to be clothed in cobweb robes and have antlers on their brow. Two of the figures fell in silence on Arandor and bore him to the ground. Without hesitation, Denarth launched himself from the window and impaled one of the assailants on his sword.
But there were more. Luchan and I, hearing the sounds of a struggle, ran out into the night with weapons drawn. Black agents surrounded Denarth while others slipped a bag over Arandor’s head and were carrying him off. As I fought my way to Denarth’s side, Luchan ran to saddle his horse and soon came charging into the midst of those creatures, spitting a couple of them on his spear that he wielded like a lance – which gave me cause to wonder again, even in the midst of the melee, if he had some of the upbringing of a knight, and if so where had he come by it?
Denarth and I fought on in the garden of the inn, joined briefly by the town guards until one had his belly laid open and another’s face was skinned off him like a rabbit pelt. The antlered men had claws like iron – I felt them myself, right through my leather jerkin. It seemed as if with each opponent we slew, the others grew stronger. The remaining guards fled then, and who can blame them?
Luchan perceived that the other creatures had almost succeeded in carrying Arandor off into the woods, where at night we would have little hope of finding him. He spurred his horse, great Gabriel, in pursuit.
As soon as Denarth and I had despatched our foes, we hurried on foot after the others. There was silence under the overhanging branches, and many were the shadows painted thickly black in the soft moonlight. In a clearing we came upon our comrades, both with their hands bound behind them and hanging by their necks from an old oak. Luchan still had his feet on the back of his horse, and it is a mark of how disciplined to strife that noble Gabriel is that he did not flinch when I jumped up, balancing on his saddle to cut down both my comrades.
Luchan still lived, but not all his arts could save Arandor. While he worked in vain to restore the spark of life, I learned by certain means that the antlered men had stolen Luchan’s clay cross, breaking it open to obtain the key within. This key opens the way to a hidden place wherein resides the black kettle, or cauldron, of ancient myth, that has the power to restore the dead to life.
We returned to the inn and there met with three new arrivals who had followed us from Crauntel Abbey on the same mission as our own. This group was led by Sir Abuassan, a knight known to me who is in service to my lord Montombre. The men who rode with him were strange and freakish. One was a dwarf clad in fanciful armour; his name was Gurk. The other was a gangling, crook-backed albino who looked to be no older than fifteen years but spoke with the deep tones of a full-grown man, and his name was Lackland. We soon discovered that the eerie appearance of these two reflected their deformed souls, for Gurk muttered and cackled about dealing death in God’s name, while Lackland – well, of his depravities I’ll recount more anon.
Inside the inn, as we all sat together in council, I finally flung the black noose around Cullon’s neck and he fell as though pole-axed. However, he soon recovered his vigour and began to struggle. He had the strength of many men, even weakened by the noose, and when we tried to wound him with our swords we found him to be a creature of living glass or rock, his mortal appearance but a garment of flesh that let him go about in mortal society and pass himself off as a man.
I held the noose a full hour, during which time Lackland had burned off Cullon’s face with a poker from the fire, revealing below a blank crystal visage with an inner glow of magical force. Wearying at last, I passed the noose to Sir Abusassan. The thing that had called itself Cullon lay still, but not yet lifeless. We intended to spend the night together in that room, hoping somehow to choke the motive force out of this strange glass monster, or on the morrow to bathe it in holy water and find some means to seal it up forever.
But fate has a full stack of cards to play on us, and all of them bring woe. In the night, Lackland made two attempts to assault the landlord and rape his wife. On the second attempt, despite having been admonished by Sir Abuassan, he succeeded in gaining entry to their room in the attic. Hearing their cries, I went to investigate and Luchan followed me – though warning, quite rightly, that we should not leave the common room.
In the attic we found ourselves attacked by two of the antlered creatures. We stood no chance of defeating them in combat; it was all we could do to defend ourselves, and I saw that in seconds the one I fought would achieve its purpose of gouging out my eyes. Fortunately for us, Gurk came charging up the stairs and our assailants chose to flee. Whatever purpose those creatures could have had in returning to attack us, having already taken the key in the cross, remained a mystery. But the effect of their visit was no less calamitous, for it distracted Sir Abuassan and he allowed the glass golem to escape. In doing so, it tore right through the bolted door of the inn, breaking the oak like paper.
After, Sir Abuassan chastised Lackland with an axe handle, beating the albino till bruises stood out scarlet on his white skin. Many another man would have died of that beating. Lackland wailed and screamed and vowed repentance, but Sir Abuassan was implacable.
So this is how we stand. The black noose I was given to overcome the glass golem proved all but useless. Our antlered adversaries, whom I presume to be another faction unallied to Cullon, are now individually stronger than we. Luchan and Denarth and I are obliged by the Abbot’s edict to journey on with freaks, knaves and fools who are more dangerous to our chances of survival than the foes who lurk in the darkness without. We have no priest to reconsecrate the cathedral in Helfax Wood even if we can reach it, and any “priest” that the Abbot supplied us now would meet with strong suspicion.
Where do we go next? What indeed is our quest? To reconsecrate a chapel that may not exist, on behalf of a faction in the Church that appears in league with devils and weird sorcery? To find the black cauldron and resurrect the clay of our slain comrade Arandor without regard for his soul? No course that my mind gives me to consider is illuminable by logic. Therefore we must pray for the insight that transcends logic; the insight that would send a shepherd searching for that one stray lamb. In faith lies our only hope.
Resolve must be the firmer, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens.