Jewelspider Chronicles 4

Written By: Stephen Dove

Session 4  (12/10/2013)

A Wedding

The company awoke before dawn, after little sleep,; as none of them had rested peacefully after last night’s news. Malvol and Carroe called them together and warned all that they might be in danger and must leave as soon as possible. They hastily packed and made ready.

When the dormitory door opened, the monk was surprised to find them all awake and dressed; all save Osric, who was snoring, or at least pretending to be.

There came then a commotion outside, and a Lady of quality passed by their door, a monk and liveried servant in tow, as she discussed plans for her forthcoming wedding. Malvol’s eyes widened when he saw the livery, for it was of his own family, the De Gards; and as he was the last of that line and had never married, knew something was amiss.

They went to the Abbey chapel to pray and then speedily ate breakfast in the refectory; and it was then that Osric and Carroe noticed they had a ‘shadow’ and guessed the Prior was watching them closely. Whilst there, some Knights strode in, bearing the arms of Baron Aldred, and loudly began eating and carousing; all the while teasing a young man called Villory, who was clearly the prospective bridegroom. One older knight whispered to the boy that ‘…at last our family will claim their lands and that’ll please your father!’ and Malvol stiffened, for the Aldred family had been enemies of his Father.

The loud older Knight came over and began asking the Company about their business. Malvol gave him tight-lipped replies, though the Knight was courteous, recognising and respecting a Crusader. Malvol told the Knight his name, and the knight withdrew looking suddenly thoughtful, Malvol then drew Carroe aside, asking him to procure him a paper livery to send to the bride as a gift. Carroe could think of only one person who could paint that well and began seeking the Cornumbrian monk, Brother Oswin.

He found him in the wine cellar ‘looking for a lost book’ though Carroe was not fooled and warned the monk that he’d soon find himself on the road again. He asked Oswin to paint the livery and the old man set to work, quickly finishing it.

Bidding the monk farewell, Carroe left the cellars and found Malvol glowering at some of Aldred’s knights, his anger clearly building. He gave him the livery and Malvol inscribed the family motto on the bottom and gave it to a passing monk ‘as a gift for the bride’.

The others were at the stables, securing their belongings to Daisy when Malvol appeared. Osric was looking very scared and had a thistle in his hands, but before anyone could ask him what was wrong, there was a roar from behind him and Aldred’s older knight strode up and regarded him balefully.

“I should have known it was you; for I passed a portrait of you and cursed your cousin every day in my youth! The Old baron had one copied so that his men could recognise you, hoping that one of us would kill you both. After you slew his son in the raid on Market’s Cross, he was so enraged he killed one of his own knights with his bare hands!”

“His son died well; blade to blade, as it should be.” said Malvol flatly. “He should have been proud! Tancred and I did what we did because of the attack on Brayings Cross, and at least we killed only men-at-arms and Knights; not villagers and old women like some!” he spat.

“I’d be far away from here Sir Knight, when the young Baron hears, for he’ll tear this country apart for the chance to get revenge for the death of his brother. It’s only it being a wedding day that’s stopping us from acting now; but we can’t risk a bad omen”

“A shame he won’t face me himself; in battle!” sneered Malvol and strode off.

Once back at the stables, Malvol saw a palfrey draped in de Gard family livery and still angry at what had just passed, slapped the Ostler away and took the beast and another large warhorse. The whole Company rode off towards Newham Ley on the purloined mounts, whilst behind them the bells of the Abbey tolled accusingly. They just dug their spurs in and rode like the wind.

Newham Ley was full of farmers and merchants, for it was market day and the muddy streets were crowded. Carroe ran from inn to inn, looking for Danee but the cart was no-where to be seen.

Malvol lead the two stolen horses into a stable, then spun the innkeeper a line about ‘seeing some stolen horses in his stables’ warning him that ‘angry men will soon be here looking for them’. The barkeep closed his inn and threw the patrons out; after checking Malvol’s story, but by then the Knight had melted into the backstreets and was nowhere to be seen.

Newham Ley

Cursing their luck, the Company were forced to quit the village as Knights entered the town from the Abbey Road. Daisy splashed across the ford and out onto the track and they chose a very rough road, with overhanging trees, knowing that the Aldred’s men would not expect them to go that way.

Osric complained the whole time, asking Malvol ‘…what the hell he was thinking off?’ but the knight refused to explain and they all plodded on, trying to think of how to find Danee. The wolf suddenly reappeared and reminded Jasper that he might be able to link thoughts with the Warlock, so Jasper decided to try.

Instantly, he felt Danee close by and the Thulander apologised and told Jasper he was in a cave off the same trackway they were already on. Thanking God for their good luck, they found Danee and the boy, safe and well and journeyed south to Blunton, hoping to throw off pursuit. A Knight did ride past and ask if they had seen travellers on horseback but the party bluffed and he rode off without suspecting them.

At nightfall they decide to approach a farm, for the weather was very bad and the boy and Maelee were cold and tired. The old farmer, his farm in disrepair and his sons long dead in the King’s wars, was happy to let them use his barn. He brought them out a pie and some cider and confided that ‘the local lord provided both, though don’t tell ‘im that!’

They bedded down, Maelee still reading the book Carroe had borrowed, whilst Osric furtively checked and rechecked if they were being followed, constantly scanning the road through the window and checking his crossbow was always in reach. Malvol and Jasper asked him what was wrong, but he was in such a foul humour that they could get nothing out of him.

In the bitter watches of the night, there came the sound of hooves, and quickly Malvol donned his armour with Danee’s aid. A knight rode up to the cottage and woke up the farmer. The old man did not answer quickly enough and the knight made to strike him. With a roar Malvol charged out of the barn and Maelee and Osric darted to either side, ready to prevent the knight’s escape.

Malvol hammered a savage blow at the horse and the Knight was thrown, the old crusader’s sword tip at his throat by the time he tried to rise. The knight haughtily demanded to known Malvol’s name, cursing him for ‘hiding behind the cross!’ and he boldly told him and requested his. Sir Peter de Gere’s anger cooled then and he regarded his adversary bravely and said that if what he said were true, then he ‘…would be given fair hearing.’ Malvol laughed at that and Sir Peter blanched, for even he knew that his own lord was anything but fair and so he promised not to give Malvol away, impressed by his valour and mien.

Malvol let him go and Osric began to go crazy, shouting at the knight for endangering them all, but the old crusader ignored him and strode back to the barn, knowing the value of a knightly promise.

Blunton

There was no further trouble that night and they were up before the dawn again, hoping to leave the lands of Baron Aldred as far behind as they could before the sun found them. Osric gave a cry and threw a thistle away behind the barn and came back looking white-faced but would not explain. The wolf looked at him for a long time, as if it guessed the source of the Harbinger’s fear, but it would not answer when Jasper questioned him.

Before they left, Malvol cut the old farmer some wood and they gifted the old man and his wife Daisy the donkey. The farmer was overjoyed for now he could try some rude ploughing and might see another winter or two and blessed them all with his best wishes. His wife pressed several pies and a jug of ale upon the Company and they rode off just as the rind of the sun appeared over the eastern rim of the world.

Just after they cleared the farm, Danee said “I hope you know what you’re doing Jasper?’

“How do you mean?’ replied the gangral mage annoyed.

“Well have you considered what will happen when that farmer put the manure from Daisy on that field of his? I expect he’ll get a surprise when he sees the size of the fruit and other things he grows then; Daisy has been in a fey gloaming for many years, after all.”

Jasper just glowered, for he clearly hadn’t thought of this, but Malvol clapped him on the shoulder and they all laughed long and hard.

As they rattled along, Maelee asked Malvol about his past, and the knight mentioned his cousin Tancred and suddenly Carroe sat up.

“You knew Tancred de Toyne? Well bless my bones; that bugger saved my life and was the best friend I ever had. We fought in Thuland together. Bloody hell; this is a turn-up!”

“Tancred was my cousin and also my best friend. He was almost of an age with me but was the father I never knew.” said the Knight sadly. “I miss him so much. Do you know how he died Master Carroe?”

“I was not there Sir Knight; the Archbishop had me under his thumb by then. T’was in the war in ’37 I think it was, though I never did get to the bottom of it.”

In the back of the cart, Osric opened a bloodshot eye, but shut it quickly again. Hoping no-one had seen his interest, he pretended to sleep for he knew what he knew was very dangerous indeed.

They went through Blunton and took the causeway east to Hallpike without stopping, concerned that Aldred’s men would be in the town. Osric was now mumbling in his sleep for he had not managed a wink since they’d left the Abbey. As they passed through the town, Carroe suddenly looked up, saw an odd black flag flying atop the church steeple, and leapt off the cart. He shouted to keep going and that he’d ‘…catch them up!’ and so the Company rode on. He returned an hour later, breathlessly relating how the flag was a sign of a message from the Archbishop and how the priest had also asked for his help in convincing the Archbishop of the ‘…sancitity and veracity of a relic he’d found.’ Osric snorted cynically and somehow everyone else agreed.

After a moment Jasper asked ‘but how did the Archbishop know where to send the message?’

“Oh he didn’t mage; he sent the same message to every church in Gorburn.”

Jasper scowled, still suspicious, but then asked ‘Well; what’s in the letter?’

Carroe broke the seal and read the message in Bachille; the scrivener’s neat handwriting, clear and precise.

“To Master Carroe, Emissary of the Archbishop, greetings,

 My servant; I thought you’d like to know that the Heretic has had a further vision and one that he says concerns you. He has dreamed of a ‘Rose Demon’ and says that the creature resides at the ‘Eye of the Gathering Storm’ whatever that may mean. Be that as it may, do not neglect your mundane means of investigation and send me your report as soon as you have any news; after all, this could be more inane ramblings! God only knows, we’ve heard enough of them.

 Signed this day, 03-12-950

 Lord Archbishop Matthew Beckett of Cantorbridge.

 P.S. Can you please tell us where you are Master Carroe; that way I can save my hand; I’ve written this same message forty times already for Beckett and it’s starting to become irritating— Alaric

Carroe told the Company of Beckett’s message and all seemed lost in thought. The idea of a demon was not an appealing one, and all fell into silence for several hours after that, till Jasper broke the spell by kicking the sleeping Osric.

The cart rumbled on all day, Malvol lost in reverie for he was approaching the old lands of his family and he felt a presentiment of fear; as if something waited ahead. They camped in a ravine, where the road dipped into a hollow that would shelter them from the wind and hide the fire. The wolf went off to hunt and Danee soon had a blaze going. Just at dusk, they saw a huge pyre of greasy smoke spiralling up into the windless, darkening sky and the wolf returned, telling Jasper it smelt sulphur on the wind.

Jasper pretended he’d worked this out and Danee said “It’s the pestilence; it was the same the last time it came. When a town or village is afflicted they burn it in the streets to keep the miasma at bay.”

“But what is the black smoke?” said Jasper “for sulphur does not burn black!”

“That’ll be the bodies boy.” said Malvol quietly and they wordlessly went to sleep; all save Osric, who prowled at the edge of the camp, starting at every sound.

About half way through the night, Jasper sat bolt upright, for he could feel a sickening maelstrom of magical power some way ahead. It was far away but he couldn’t tell how far; and cursed his Master for not teaching him the trick of ‘fire speech’. The flares of power came and went, but in the end the mage fell asleep.

Malvol meanwhile, dreamed of his mother in a maze made of huge rose-bushes, their scent filling the air with a sickly smell; at the centre his Father stood waiting, his eyes blazing with fire.

Morning came to find Osric still awake, now feeling so bad that he even sicked up his breakfast. The wolf ran into camp with something in its mouth and dropped it at Osric’s feet; he exploded into rage and took out a dagger to gut the beast, but it ran away, jaws parted in the suggestion of a wicked grin. Jasper cuffed the assassin and then picked up what the Connor the wolf had dropped; a single spiky thistle. He turned to Osric to explain, but the harbinger was already asleep.

For whom the bell tolls

They carried onwards towards Hallpike and talked again of Tancred de Toyne. Maelee seemed very interested in him, and asked who his mother was. Danee favoured them all with an anecdote, for he’d once been forced to fight on the side of the Thulanders against Tancred, when he was King’s Champion.

“The Thulanders feared him all right; a great bear of a man with a laugh like thunder. One day he ranged out with just a few men and and mist came down and his party’s horses went lame. It was then our archers came upon them. One by one his knights fell to arrows and at last, when there were but three of them left, a great brute of a northlander called Jorri Olafsson strode up to Tancred and asked to discuss ‘terms for surrender’. Whereupon Tancred replied that ‘we don’t have enough men to take you all prisoner but we’ll think about it!’ He then cut his way out of the trap as nightfall came down. He was a legend amongst our people and there was an order for his capture but no –one was to kill him, so his death must have been an unlucky accident.”

Osric, huddled in the back of the cart, turned his face away and composed his features to hide his panic. The wolf looked up at him knowingly.

They came across a party of men leading mules laden with goods, heading in the opposite direction. The land was open here, fields to either hand and yet there was little cover and something a little desolate in the scene. The merchants came closer and Malvol could see they were all red-faced and scowling. He rode ahead to find out what was amiss and heard the merchants’ tale of ‘….a toll being collected ahead, by ne’er do wells bearing the livery of the old de Gard family.

Calling the others to arms, Malvol drew his sword and promised there would be a reckoning for this. He donned his full armour and the others also made ready and they moved carefully on, Maelee and Osric on one side of the cart and Carroe haunting the other.

On they went, until the road passed through a copse of trees. There, in the middle of the road, stood five men armed with staves; brazenly lounging in the afternoon air. As soon as they heard the cart, they jumped up, ready to swarm it.

Carroe saw an archer hiding in the trees, and Osric spotted another on a high outcrop overlooking the road. Carroe let fly with his crossbow and the first man crashed out of the tree dead just as Osric slashed the second across the throat and threw him off the cliff.

The rest of the bandits, unaware of this ruckus, put on ragged tabards bearing the fox motif of the De Gards and demanded a toll. Malvol hollered for them to surrender and charged. They scattered like chafe and it was over in moments; two men hacked apart as they ran and another brought down by Maelee’s dagger. Jasper summoned eldritch vines to grab a feeling bandit and then the other surrendered.

Carroe ordered Danee to kindle fire, and the Thulander did so with a troubled look upon his face. He then took his brand and asked both men if they repented of their sin’s and both nodded a white-faced agreement. He branded them both with a B on their left cheek, then stripped them of all weapons and let them go. They ran off gratefully into the woods and Danee heaved a sigh of relief, clearly expecting far worse to be meted out to the bandits.

But an argument was brewing, as Malvol wanted to give the dead men decent burial in the town; whereas Jasper and Maelee were for burying by the roadside. “I’ll not have them lying unquietly, here right by a busy roadside! They died by violence and they’ll walk unless placed on hallowed ground!”

“We could weight them down with stones!” said Jasper

“Let’s burn them.” Said Osric and they all rounded on him and the argument truly began.

In the end, Carroe pointed out to Malvol that no-one in the town would allow them decent burial unless they lied about how they died; and that would result in awkward questions.

Malvol grew thoughtful and the wolf suggested that he and Carroe could ‘hallow’ the ground so that the corpses would not walk and the mage agreed to try.

They said prayers over the dead men’s’ graves and then Jasper intoned a spell, using Ariel like a wand. There was a sighing like the wind and the corpses collapsed as if they had suddenly rotted away; the company each clapped Jasper quietly on the back.

Hallpike

A few minutes later they were back on the road, heading for Hallpike. They had stripped off their armour earlier and all now journeyed unencumbered. Osric dozed in the cart, happier to sleep by day than by night for some reason. Towards late afternoon they reached the small town and Malvol felt unaccountably sad, for the manor of his forefathers lay but a day’s ride away and this town had once been in his domain; long ago before he took ship to Crescentium.

The town was oddly full; carts full of people arriving even as the Company pulled Magnus down the main street. There was a festival atmosphere with lamps strewn from porches and bunting hung across the streets. The cause was soon made clear; a stake had been erected in the market-place and faggots of wood heaped about its base.

“There’s to be a burning I’d guess; most likely a witch!” ventured Danee.

“Aye, by why have they left it so late? It’s dangerous to tackle a witch with the dark just a few hours away; always best to burn one in the morning.” said Malvol.

Jasper just scowled and the wolf loped off into the forest on the other side of the town, looking back once, before disappearing into the trees.

Just as the Company piled off the cart a thin priest came out of the church, which was enormous for a town this size and had the look of a half completed Abbey. “There will be no burning today good people; the woman, presumed a witch is innocent!” shouted the priest, struggling to make himself heard over the roar of the crowd. This pronouncement was greeted with a storm of fruit and buns and the priest retreated to the safety of the church porch before a rock caught the side of his head and he staggered inside.

“This could turn very ugly by nightfall.” said Osric, who had been watching the crowd carefully.

“The beadles should close all the taverns.” Malvol spat.

“The riot would start straight away then.” said Maelee, scanning the crowd.

“Aye but it’s easier dealing with sober men and women.” declared Danee.

“I want to see this witch!” said Carroe and he pushed across the marketplace before anyone could argue.

Osric hollered after him but either the crowd swallowed his protest or Carroe ignored him; for he kept on walking until he was inside the church. “Hide the cart in a barn somewhere Danee; I saw a few on the south road. And keep the boy quiet; we can do without any of his ‘trick’s whilst people are looking for someone to burn.” whispered Malvol.

Danee rumbled off down the road with Magnus and the boy and the others took their bundles into the church. As Jasper walked towards the massive structure Maelee whistled her surprise; ‘A bit big for a small town church isn’t it?’ but Jasper remembered a conversation he’d had on watch with Malvol and told her the story.

“There used to be an Abbey here, but they made the mistake of lending the King a lot of money. He managed to seize their lands on trumped up charges of some kind, and got his debts cancelled into the bargain. The building wasn’t finished but the King allowed the clergy to reconsecrate it as a church to keep them quiet; and so here it is!”

“Never trust a King!” spat Maelee and Jasper, thinking of Lord Edmund back at Vennforth, could only heartily agree.

“How does Malvol know so much about this place?” said Maelee suddenly.

“I can only suppose he grew up near here!” ventured the mage.

They entered the church to find that Carroe was already below with the prisoner but Jasper immediately knew something was wrong. With a rising sense of horror, he ignored the rotund prelate Father Hubert, the canon of the church who moved forward in greeting, and instead strode towards the altar. There was nothing; or even worse than nothing! To his senses the air seemed charged with magic, but there was no shred of divine power here.

He stalked up to Malvol and whispered this news to him and the knight’s eyes widened and he frogmarched Maelee to the altar. There was not one glimmer of her shadow as had happened atVennforth. Jasper shot a suspicious look at the fat churchman but Malvol hissed ‘Play along; we need to find out what’s going on here!”

Carroe came up shortly after and said it was unlikely that the girl below was a witch. Father Hubert clapped his hands and proclaimed that this was a good excuse for a feast, and set his verger to inviting the great and the good from the town to a banquet that very evening, also inviting the Company too.

Malvol said that they would be delighted and then drew Carroe aside and told him of the lack of godliness here. Carroe went straight to the altar and examined the holy books and instruments, but pronounced all was well there. His brow creased in frustration but he agreed that they should play along ‘…for surely this evil will soon show itself.’

Maelee and Osric, fearing discovery because of their lack of shadows and feeling the need of some knavery, crept off into the bustling town, fingers pricking at all the drunken marks they saw lounging around the taverns.

Osric sloped off to sell the bandits’ bows for he had not a single coin on him. He fell in with some hunters and they tried to trick him out of the bargain with an archery contest, which Osric by sheer good luck, managed to win and sold the bows at a decent price. He went to find Maelee, feeling smug.

Maelee scouted out the taverns, looking for a likely spot for some mummery or playing. She immediately saw that the patrons of ‘The Cock’ were rowdy, mostly male and looked to be working themselves up for some trouble. She headed to the south end of the town, as far away as possible from The Cock, and found a small merchant’s Inn with a side courtyard called ‘The De Gard Arms’. She quickly came to terms with the barkeep and began setting up.

Three hours later, as darkness fell, it seemed to be raining money. Hordes of drunk merchants and wives, their faces smiling in their stupor, were piled about the stage the barkeep had erected for her, snoring and belching in contentment. Empty ale barrels stood forlornly everywhere and the alekeep was practically hopping with glee, as he handed Maelee her share.

Malvol arrived and gave Maelee a surprise; a dress he’d somehow managed to procure, its cut the very finest and the neck and hem glistening with semi-precious stones.

“For the feast this eve Good Lady.” he said, bowing and she almost wept at the sight of a garment so costly.

Oh Malvol!” she cried. “I haven’t worn anything so fine since I ran away!” and then her cheeks coloured hotly, as she realised what she’d blurted out.

The knight withdrew graciously, and a tavern slattern then helped her on with the dress, remarking at how fine the gems were. Maelee, surprised at the confidence in the girl’s voice, asked how she knew so much of gems. The girl replied that her father had been a gem cutter; ‘before the pestilence took him and mother. Now I must work here. But I’ll not lie on my back like the other girls though!’ She declared fiercely.

Reaching down, Maelee took a single amethyst from the hem of her gown and gave it to the girl. She skipped off happily and Maelee left the tavern feeling wonderful.

It lasted about three steps, for Osric joined her as she stepped out into the streets, bleating because he’d been too scared to cut the purses of any of the marks watching her perform. The Camelot arched an eyebrow and asked him if he was ‘…losing his touch?’ He sulked for a moment; Maelee’s triumph having taken the shine off of his ‘paltry victory’ over the hunter. Then he complained because ‘…you’ve got more money than me’. He was still aggrieved as they turned down a narrow alley, when he stopped and gasped suddenly, as if wounded. There, left on a step where it would certainly be seen, was a single fresh thistle. Osric turned and ran back to the church, not stopping to look back even when Maelee shouted after him.

She threaded her way through the narrow streets and found the barn where Danee had taken the cart. The boy was asleep and Danee was humming to himself, currying Magnus down. She satisfied herself that all was well and then went up to join the feast.

It was night now, though the town was still full of people; their faces made anonymous by the blackness. Merchants and Minor Knights made their way up to the church, to be admitted by Malvol, who was acting as doorkeep.

Inside, the others had all dressed in their least stained clothing and had washed, though Osric was no-where to be found. A feast had been laid out on three long tables and the meat filled the air with a delicious smell. Hubert waddled forward and invited everyone to eat and the invited guests sat, whilst minstrels played in a gallery above, much to Maelee’s delight. Osric suddenly appeared and winked at Maelee. He sat close to Hubert; probably to invite himself to the better cuts of meat thought the troubadour disapprovingly. She chatted to Malvol but he said that questioning of the ‘witch’ had provided no clue as to what was going on here.’

Halfway through the feast, Father Hubert stood up, his face florid from the heat and the wine and announced that ‘whomsoever finds the gold crown in yon pudding shall be the ‘King of this Feast’ and shall order us about for his pleasure.’

The guests tittled with pleasure and all lined up to receive their portion of the pud. As soon as they’d all sat, a young cloth merchant stood up triumphantly and declared that he’d found the crown. The guests all clapped then and the merchant cocked his head to one side, clearly considering what form the revels should take.

He sent out a manservant and a few minutes later, he returned, carrying a huge chest. He declared that all should dress in “costumes from the mummers’ play of ‘The Beasts.’” and the guests all roared their approval. Each guest took a costume and hastily put it on and soon the room was filled with birds and lions an insects.

The clock struck midnight and suddenly Jasper gasped; the clothes had started smoking. He felt a rush of baleful power and pulled off his costume, but turned in horror to see that many of the other guests were transforming into demonic animals, their eyes contorted in agony. Malvol, Maelee and Osric, threw off their costumes, and Carroe, who’d been downstairs watching the witch, ran into the room, clearly aware that something was wrong.

A pervading sense of evil filled the feasting chamber and for a moment it seemed like no one could move. Then Malvol shouted to anyone that could hear that they should ‘run for the crypts!’ About a third of the guests, still human in form, charged like a panicked mob into the chapel proper. So furious was the charge that the doors to the chancel were ripped off their hinges and the door was sent tumbling to the floor.

Cursing, Malvol ran at the nearest ‘demon’ but it swatted him aside like an insect. Regaining his feet, he ran for the door, cursing his stupidity in leaving his weapon behind; for they were all of them unarmed.

Jasper saved all then; hoisting the door back into position and laying a spell upon it, so that the creatures could come at them.

‘”You’ve bought us the time; now let’s use it!” shouted the crusader as he ran into the crypts, and finding the tombs and catafalques of his ancestors, the De Gards. Calling some of the frightened merchants for aid, he levered open several tombs and came out bearing ancient weapons and armour. He asked a young squire to help him arm and together they went up to meet their foes.

“What is your name young squire?” asked Malvol “For tis impolite to die without knowing a companion’s name!”

“Are you always this cheerful Sir Knight? But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll favour you with my name should we live.”

They strode up to find the chapel in chaos; the altar was bathed in a terrible fire and Carroe, standing before it, seemed to be battling invisibly with something hidden in the flames.

“It was the relic!” Carroe bellowed. “I should have known! Just keep those things away and I can win this battle!” But his face was already sheened with sweat and his clothes were smoking with the heat and suddenly Malvol’s heart misgave him.

Anything he might have done was stolen from his mind by the sight out of the window, for the entire town seemed to have erupted into flames, and by the hideous light Malvol saw men beheading other men and other terrible things. Waves of townsfolk threw themselves at each other in an orgy of destruction the like of which the crusader had never seen before.

“Whatever it is has taken the townsfolk! That’s no riot out there!” spat Jasper as he turned back to the door.

“This thing is feeding off the blood!” shouted Carroe

Behind him Maelee worked feverishly to open the outer door, but Malvol laid a hand on her shoulder, not sure that he wanted to go outside.

“The battle’s here girl.” He said gently, but her eyes were wild and he left her to her lockpicks.

“Here they come!” shouted Jasper as the doors suddenly buckled and a lion burst through with the force of a raging river.

Malvol met that force head on; and was raked and battered by claw attacks; but he stood his ground, for the way was narrow and knew that his unarmoured friends behind him would be ripped apart in seconds. Osric grimly drew back his crossbow, his eyes suddenly calm for the first time in days, and he lay on the ground. He aimed the quarrel through Malvol’s legs, at the demonic mass of flailing jaws and claws that was battening on the Knight. Malvol stepped aside to swing his sword and landed a solid blow that staggered the thing. At the same instant Osric loosed and the bolt sang through the air and thudded into the creature, with a dull thunk. The monster roared, and Malvol was almost hurled aside. “This is not good!” he bellowed as the creature came on again.

Jasper took in the scene and knew what he must do; he stalked towards the towering pillar of fire on the altar, intent on joining Carroe in fighting it with his will. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils, for Carroe’s skin was blistering; nevertheless, the fire was smaller than it had been. Just as he extended his will, Jasper felt the wolf in his mind.

“Master; this is dangerous! I will join with you as well.”

“Well get on with it. We haven’t exactly got all night.”

Together they joined their wills with Carroe and it was as if their souls were suddenly scoured by a raging river of fire. Jasper gasped at the sheer power but then felt a strong mind join his own and suddenly knew strength. It was as if a torrent broke in his spirit and suddenly the fire was diminishing.

“Need some help here!” cried Malvol as the Lion threw him to one side and charged at Osric. The assassin did not move a muscle; just aimed his now poisoned dart at the creature’s throat. “Here kitty!” he breathed and fired and the quarrel slammed into the creature’s open mouth, pinning it against the wall. Instantly it reverted into the form of a fat woman and Malvol staggered as he saw this.

The giant rat was on him in an instant, barrelling past him towards Jasper and Carroe’s unguarded backs. Malvol managed to regain his balance and hacked at the creature’s flank, carving a ragged gash that forced the creature to turn and confront him, for it had lost the use of a limb. The crusader opened the rat’s throat with a horizontal slash and turned to survey the field, as a vast snake slithered towards him from the ruined banqueting chamber, dozens of its kin in the shadows behind. He felt his strength leave him and saw his armour was rent in a dozen places, but he turned to face this new foes, resigned to death.

A door further down the nave burst open and more animals poured in, their eyes burning with demonic fire. Suddenly the squire shouted ‘De Gard! De Gard!” and charged them, but was knocked flat. Malvol said a silent prayer, expecting the squire to have been ripped limb from limb, but when he glanced aside, he saw a spectral figure battling the demons. It was a knight, dressed in the device of his old family, and his heart swelled with pride. He stood shoulder to shoulder with a De Gard again for the first time in twenty years and suddenly felt fresh strength in his arm, as the snake’s vast shadow fell upon him.

A hideous voice rang out from above “Do you really think you can win stupid mortals?” gloated the presence. “You are so weak and pitiful!”

Then each of the company heard a mocking laugh and suddenly an insane babble of voices rose, accusing each hearer of every sin they had ever committed, defiling the nature of every friendship or love they’d ever had and pushing them all down into crushing despair.

Carroe burst into flames, his robes consumed in an instant. Jasper reached out and plunged his hand into the flame and suddenly channelled healing power into it. It was as if a dam had broken and suddenly the demon’s power was sundered. With a sound like breaking glass, it was over; the flaming relic disintegrated and all the demonic animals keeled over and suddenly reverted to the people they had been.

Malvol looked around him grimly and then fell to his knees, thanking God for deliverance.

“Sadly it’s not God you have to thank!” exclaimed Osric, wiping his face. “It’s Jasper and Carroe. They’ll be insufferable for weeks after this.” he moaned, but his face split into a grin.

Father Hubert came up from the crypt a few minutes later and looked out of the windows. Fires still raged outside, but the town now seemed quiet. “What a terrible night! I cannot believe this.” but no-one was in the mood to listen.

“What did you do priest? Why was the relic profane?” said Carroe savagely, as he donned a new robe, but the obese prelate looked non-plussed.

“The relic has been here since before the founding of the Abbey. There are many accounts of its healing power. If there was any evil in it, then it came only recently.”

Jasper, who was buried in a book describing the history of Hallpike Abbey, nodded his agreement with Hubert. “The relic’s so old that some of my kin even handled it; it was genuine.” stated the mage flatly.

Around them those who had survived were huddled in the nave, covered by hastily ripped curtains and looking pale. The lay brothers attended them and food and medicines were being brought. Malvol glanced into the ruined banqueting chamber and saw at least twenty still forms, though the gloom hid the awful details of their fates.

“Let’s hope Danee’s kept the boy safe!” the crusader said grimly.

Aftermath

A day later Malvol and Maelee stood outside in the ruins of the blackened inn where Maelee had played. All that was left was a fire-blasted stone base and smoking skeletal timbers sticking out of the charred earth drunkenly. The girl was speaking softly to Malvol, whose eyes were filled with pain.

“You did all you could Sir Knight, as did we all! For a whole day you have laboured to put out the fires and to help the injured. It has to be enough!” she pleaded. But the knight turned aside and looked up into the blackened town, smoke still drifting up from the smoldering ruins, and his face was dead and white.

“So many dead; just like the last time. It seems God is punishing me.” He whispered and strode off towards the church.

Maelee turned and went to go out into a copse of woods that had stood behind the inn.  She looked back into the town and saw that fully a third of Hallspike lay in ruins and many other buildings had been broken into and looted. Bodies were piled up on carts and a foetid stink hung over the town. The Camelot felt numb and unable to cry, then her foot slipped into the ash and out of a blackened, skeletal hand, rolled a single amethyst. Bending down, she remembered the tavern girl, and suddenly wept for many an hour.

On the other side of the town, later that day, Jasper’s wolf had found Danee and the boy; for the boy had somehow started a tiny fire and Danee was forced to flee the barn after he put it out, because of the acrid smoke. He had found an abandoned farm on the eastern edge of Hallspike just before the violence had erupted and so fortunately he and the boy had been in no danger.

Jasper ruffled Connor the wolf’s hair and congratulated the animal. Connor ignored him and said “Did you see what flew from the bell-tower that night you bested the demon?”

“The night we bested the demon.” corrected the mage pedantically and if the wolf could have rolled its eyes, it would have done. “Yes; I saw something and what I saw will haunt me all my days.” he eventually conceded.

“We have not seen the last of that creature Master!”

“What a delightful thought!” said Jasper, as the others strode up.

“Are we ready to leave?” Carroe said, the ‘witch’ in tow behind him.

“If I never see this place again, it’ll be too soon!” breathed Osric piling his gear on the cart.

The company rumbled out of Hallspike; a different group from those who had entered. Danee seemed oddly the same, chatting as he always did, but the rest of the company who had been in the church had dark circles round their eyes and there were other changes too, that the eye could not see. As the town shrank away behind them, each reflected on what they’d seen and all were silent.

The coroner had interviewed half the town, arriving the day after the fire. He had poked his nose in everywhere, but Carroe had handled the whole thing, swearing everyone in the church to secrecy. He paid a visit to the Coroner and assured him that what had happened here was ‘Church business’. The coroner had not been satisfied, particularly as it looked like there’d be no opportunities for levying any fines, but Carroe had showed him the Archbishop’s seal and the man had agreed, as long as Carroe passed his full report on to his Master, Matthew Beckett. Carroe knew he had overstepped his authority but prayed that Beckett would not catch up with him for a few more weeks. For somewhere ahead of him, he knew, waited his enemy and he longed to face the demon again. His report to the archbishop did not include the strange marks that had appeared on his hands; black scars like he’d been crucified. He wore his gloves at all times and none of the others, bar Jasper had seen.

“Where are we heading now, and why have you brought that stupid girl?” moaned Osric as they cleared the town.

“We’re going to Crountal Abbey!” said Malvol suddenly and all turned to look at him, for it was the first words he’d said all day. No-one dared argue but when they came to track, saw that it was a steep and rocky drovers’ way and no road the cart could take, so they sent Danee, the boy and the ‘witch’ back to Hallspike. In truth it was something of a relief when they left for Danee’s talk was a reminder that somehow they’d all changed, though none could have put it into words.

“I have a bad feeling about this!” muttered Osric as they plodded up the trail, through the fells, sere grasses and upland bogs to either hand of the rocky trackway.

They camped in a bothy of fieldstone walls with a roof covered over with turves. It was a meagre shelter, but they erected a curtain to keep the wind out and soon had a fire going. A stream flowed down the back wall of the bothy and then away into the floor; for there was a long pothole under the bothy, though too narrow for a man to squeeze into. They ate in silence for none could put words to their feelings, but then suddenly the wolf’s ears pricked up.

“Does it matter that that man is following us again Master?”

“What man you idiot; you never told me about any man?”

“It must have slipped my mind Master.” said the wolf dryly “It’s the one whose after Osric; he’s been following us sinceVennforth Abbey.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me!” raged the mage silently.

“It was more fun this way!” laughed the wolf “Anyway; don’t get your robe in a twist, I’ve been watching him, though he’s certainly the cleverest and quietest human I’ve ever encountered. Why do you think Osric’s been so jumpy; his old ‘family’ are after him? I hear the harbingers take a very dim view of people trying to leave their fraternity.”

“Is something wrong mage?” said Maelee, for the entire exchange had taken place in Jasper’s mind and he’d forgotten the others couldn’t hear. He had sat there for half a minute, his eyes glazed over.

Grimly he told them of Connor’s revelation. Osric wailed and beat his head against the wall. “I thought I’d lost the bastards. Even dressed a corpse in my clothes back in the town to convince them I was dead! Arrgghhh!!” he wailed.

“Well” said the wolf “at least we got rid of two of them; there were three men following us after Blunton. One was called Cadarn and he’s the only one left. The other two died in the riot.”

Jasper related this and Osric’s despair became even more complete. “Cadarn; just bugger off back to Ereworn”! he exclaimed. “Go tell the Grandmother to go to hell! Why can’t they leave me alone?”

Malvol sat quietly and considered before laying a hand on Osric and saying “Were we not boon companions and had you not saved my life, I’d have your head in this hour!” he declared and Osric buried his head in the straw and writhing as if in a fit.

“Somehow I don’t think that helped Malvol.” observed Maelee.

A few hours later, they were sat round the fire and Osric had told them much of his story. His real name was Sven of Ashmore but he’d fled to Ereworn with his elder brother after his mother died. They’d still been barely children but had been captured by the Harbingers. He’d been given a choice; join or die. It was many years before he left that mountain village again and his brother had by then been poisoned and died during their ‘training’. He skipped the first time he’d been given a job to do alone but now they were hunting him.

“So now you know.” said Sven, his face bleak. “It’s just a matter of time before they catch me!”

“You have not told us everything Sven.” Observed Carroe shrewdly “..but we’ll let that pass for now.”

“Was that why you were upset at those thistles?” asked Maelee

“It’s my clan sign; we always leave it where those marked for death can see it. The fear is the thing. In Ereworn our ‘marks’ get so afraid they sometimes kill themselves before we have to do a thing. The clans breed on fear!”

“We’d better get some sleep; we’ve a long journey tomorrow.” said Malvol and it was plain he wanted to hear no more, lest honour require him to slay ‘Osric’. Unaccountably, he didn’t want to do it; for though Osric was annoying, there was also steel in the man, and besides, they’d stood shoulder to shoulder.

They settled down to sleep, though Sven lay awake and he knew he’d sleep not a wink till cock crowed.

“Can’t you do anything about this assassin Connor?” pulsed Jasper to his wolf silently.

“I could, but is he worth it Master; for there would be great risk to me and my true task is to ensure you stay alive?”

“Find this man and scare him off, or do whatever you need to do.”

“If that is your wish Master.” and the wolf padded out into the night.

Jasper could not sleep and so was not awoken when the he heard the wolf in his mind again a few hours later.

“The assassin has doubled back and is observing the cart. I suspect he is contemplating taking Danee and the others hostage, though I doubt he’ll go through with it. What shall I do Master?”

“Scare him off; kill him if you can.”

The link broke off and Jasper sat tensely waiting in the darkness.

He did not see the fay glow emanating from the stream at the back of the bothy, nor hear the voice that spoke in Sven-Osric’s mind.

“Greetings my servant; I am here to ask a boon of you and to give you one in return. You are pursued by an assassin from your past. What say I deal with him for you, for I have uses for one such as he? In return I want you to burn the library at Crountal Abbey; there is too much lore of my people held there and I cannot abide it any longer. Are we agreed; do you understand?”

“Yes Master!” whispered Sven-Osric and for the first time in a week, fell into slumber whilst night still reigned.

Crountal Abbey

The next morning, Jasper awoke to find the wolf licking his face and Malvol bent over the fire preparing breakfast.

“Where have you been you lazy animal; sleeping in a barn no doubt?” he said, caught midway between affection and annoyance.

“I don’t sleep Master, as you well know!” scolded the wolf in an injured tone. “Well, the assassin is gone.”

“How; did you kill him?”

“No; I didn’t but something did or at least he was spirited away. His scent went into a copse of trees after I scared him from the cart. I felt a strange surge of power and when I went into the copse, he was gone and there was no scent trail leading away. That was the scent of magic; and fey magic I might add. If he could have done that before, he would have; since he knew I was poking around him for the last few days and also knew that I was your ‘pet’. I would suggest he has been taken; though by whom or for what purpose, I couldn’t say. Anyway, is there any meat left for my breakfast since I’ve been running all night, and I do need to eat you know?”

Jasper told the others as they broke camp and Osric-Sven looked smug and patted the animal, though the wolf glared back as if it might bite him. Jasper fed Connor a haunch of meat and the wolf greedily devoured it and then looked up at Osric as if he was next. The assassin just beamed back, brazenly.

As they walked, the wind got up and the clouds scudded overhead, their cloaks billowing in the breeze. Maelee asked Malvol and Carroe for more memories of Tancred and they related several of his ‘larger than life’ exploits to her with more than a few tears. They avoided talking about Osric by unspoken agreement, for it seemed a topic they dare not broach and after an hour they all fell silent, the insistent tug of the wind their only companions in their seemingly endless trudging.

“When do we get to this bloody abbey? My pack’s heavy!” whined Osric but no-one answered him.

Crountal Abbey hove into view at midday; looking oddly stark and alien against the downlands that surrounded it. Huge flocks of sleep ranged the hillsides around the main compound, and as they approached, several shepherds waved in greeting.

They were admitted to the Abbey and Carroe blagged access to the books, though what he’d promised the Prior this time, he wasn’t telling.

Osric stalked the halls, trying not to be obvious, but feverishly trying to think of a way into the library, for again Carroe had told them that ‘no-one but the librarian ever goes in.’ He silently seethed as a voice at the back of his mind warned him of the consequences of failure……

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Maelee

Malvol

Jasper

Sven

Carroe

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